Volcano Boarding in Nicaragua

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Yes, you read that correctly. Volcano boarding. Don’t know what it is? I didn’t know that it even existed until I saw it on CNN’s “thrill-seekers bucket list” a few months ago. Volcano boarding tours are only operated at Cerro Negro, outside of Leon, Nicaragua and involve “sledding” down a semi-active volcano at speeds up to 95kph (I say semi-active, because though it is active, it hasn’t erupted in years). My birthday was on 11/11 and my boyfriend and I had been planning this short excursion to Nicaragua for volcano boarding for awhile. We researched the trip and found that it was extremely affordable. The boarding trips are only $29 and the hostel that operates the tours (Bigfoot Hostel), is $25 per night for a private double room (I believe that it was around $7 for a shared dorm room).

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With our travel benefits, a flight to Nicaragua was around $50 roundtrip (perks of being flight attendants…). We were only in Nicaragua for 3 days (10th through the 12th) and flew into Managua where we rented a car to make the 1.5-hour drive to Leon. Leon is a cute city full of culture, churches, and many hostels. We spent the first afternoon walking around to see what it had to offer.

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The next morning, we began our tour. There were about 34 of us “backpackers” in a large, open truck for an hour-long drive to the base of the volcano.

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Once we arrived, we signed in, retrieved our gear, and commenced on our 45-minute hike to the top.

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The hike was actually more difficult than I imagined, as we carefully placed our feet over volcanic rocks, avoiding a nasty fall to the bottom. I was in a lot better shape than I realized, as I managed to stay at the beginning of the line for the entirety of the hike while carrying my own board and gear (we had the option of paying $5 to have guides carry our boards up for us…I liked the challenge of carrying it myself). The views from the top were breathtaking.

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We were allowed some time to rest and enjoy the views and were then given a quick introduction for boarding down the volcano. If we wanted to go slower, we had to keep our feet flat on the ground and our bodies erect, if we wanted to go faster, we were to keep our feet in the air and lean backward onto the “sled.” I hadn’t decided which was the best option for me yet. My boyfriend decided that he wanted to go for speed and was hoping to break the 95kph all-time record. I figured that I would go somewhere in the middle. We donned our protective suits and goggles, had our GoPros with us to document the event, and were positioned toward the end of the line to watch a few others for strategic purposes.

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I went before him, and as I watched others slowly move themselves down the volcano before me, figured that speed would be more fun, since we were only allowed one try. I went for it. I kept my feet up for the duration of the ride and kept my body leaned back as far as I could. I could feel that I was going too fast. The goggles were nearly impossible to see out of, and my GoPro was attached a headstrap, making it even more difficult to see. I felt that I had no control. But it was fun and I couldn’t wait to see how fast I was going at the end. Well, I made the mistake of fumbling with my GoPro to reposition it since it was directly in my face, and I somehow managed to disrupt my balance, resulting in a crash. Disoriented, I rose up only to realize that I was about 15 feet from the bottom (the volcano is over 2,000 feet high at a 41-degree angle). I retrieved the GoPro that fell off of my head and looked up embarrassingly, but yet still smiling, to the onlookers. Everybody looked concerned. “I’m bleeding, aren’t I?” Yup, I was. “Is it bad?” “Ummm…no…just this top part. It’ll be OK.” Ugh. I managed to keep a smile on my face and did not feel any pain, so I figured that it’d be fine and that I should just avoid looking in a mirror until it was cleaned up, since it probably looked worse than it really was. As I watched the reactions of those around me, I theorized that maybe it was pretty bad. I had told my boyfriend that I would film him from the bottom, so I handed off my GoPro to one of the others as I went to get a gauze for my head. The group was extremely friendly and ensured my comfort until my boyfriend came down. He, too, went for speed, though he crashed and rolled about halfway through. He rolled for a very long time until he was finally able to get back up and retrieve the goggles that fell off of his head further up the volcano. Unphased by the crash, he continued to try for speed for the remainder of the ride down. He ended up with only a slight scratch on his hand. His time: 45kph. My time: 90kph. The second fastest speed that day was 75kph. I hadn’t heard it yet, but I was 1kph away from the women’s ALL-TIME RECORD. I had no idea. The fastest time ever recorded (since 2004 when it began) is 95kph. I guess that the minor injury was worth it. The group continued to be helpful and after realizing that it was my birthday, serenaded me with the Happy Birthday song in 3 languages (English, Italian, Hebrew). It was the most epic birthday ever.

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Upon return to the hostel, after many congratulatory praises, I cleaned myself up and my boyfriend assisted with cleaning the wound. We decided that it might be best for us to visit the hospital right down the street just in case of any complications. A translator from the hostel joined us and we didn’t have to wait too long before being seen by a doctor. I know enough Spanish, but still had no idea what was going on when I was attempting to listen to the doctor about my condition. All I heard was “mariposa,” which I knew meant “butterfly” in Spanish. Ah, I thought. Maybe I just need a butterfly bandage. The doctor didn’t seem too concerned and merely cleaned up my wound, stating that if anything, I only needed one stitch. We decided to wait on returning to the U.S. for any stitches. I was provided with some prescriptions, which I filled at pharmacy next door. The visit plus the 4 prescriptions were only $50 or so.

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I kept apologizing to my boyfriend about ruining the remainder of the trip, but he was proud of me and happy to help out. It did make for a pretty good story. We hadn’t really planned much else anyway. By the next morning, I was looking and feeling a bit better, though was still a bit nervous about being seen in public (getting onto a plane back to the U.S. while I was covered in a huge bandage and facial scabs didn’t sound like fun). I purchased a ball cap at the airport and that helped to hide my wounds as we made our way back to Miami. I had a birthday party waiting for me at my apartment and I had to tell my friends to not plan a big night out, since I wasn’t exactly presentable. We stayed in and had a nice evening at my apartment and they weren’t too shocked by my beaten up face. I went to urgent care at a nearby hospital the following morning (the 13th) and was relieved to hear that most of my facial abrasion probably wouldn’t scar, other than the largest one at the top of my forehead. I hadn’t taken any of the medications from Nicaragua, and was prescribed new medications here in Miami (an antibiotic pill and a topical cream). I was able to get someone to work my trip for the 14th, and now, 4 days later, am almost back to new. It’s amazing what the human body can do! I return to work tomorrow evening and now have a pretty badass story to tell :).

Here is my GoPro video from the volcano boarding experience:

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Albuquerque Balloon Fiesta and Nearby Activities

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The Albuquerque Balloon Fiesta is an annual event that occurs in Albuquerque, New Mexico for around 9 days each October. It is the largest hot air balloon festival in the world and is also the most photographed event on earth. Around 750 hot air balloons head toward the skies in a week full of anticipation and events. I had a few days off early last month and was researching a new state to visit along with fun activities within the area. I had never heard of the Balloon Fiesta, but somehow stumbled upon it in my internet searches. My boyfriend/favorite travel buddy had overlapping days off so we decided to head to ABQ Airport on our travel passes for a few days. We had planned on spending the first afternoon exploring, since it wasn’t possible to arrive on the first day before the festival began.

One of our many travel bucket lists includes a list of the “50 Weirdest Things in Each State,” which I posted awhile back. New Mexico’s “weirdest thing” happens to be in Albuquerque, at Tinkertown Museum.

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Tinkertown Museum contains the collection of Ross Ward, who took over 40 years to carve and create the pieces in the museum that you see today. Tinkertown consists of several rooms of miniature wood-carved scenes, animations, and antiques. The admission price is only a few dollars and you can walk through the museum in less than an hour, but it is an interesting little stop if you are in the area. It is easy to be impressed while pondering the amount of time and energy that Ross Ward must have put in to his “hobby” of hand-made creations.

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After that, we stopped along a hiking trail for about a half hour and then drove to the top of a peak for some excellent views of the fall foliage. We checked in to our hotel, rested a bit, then headed to dinner for a nice Mexican meal at Taco Sal (featured on Breaking Bad, apparently). The next morning we were up early and ready to see some balloons (I think that I was bit more excited than Brett…). Unfortunately, the weather wasn’t very cooperative, and the “red flag” was posted upon arrival to the park, indicating that conditions were not ideal for the balloonists to send their balloons into the air. The flag had changed to yellow, and as we anxiously walked alongside the vendors to kill time,  we overheard conversations stating that the balloonists may not feel comfortable launching the balloons that day. I do not deal well with disappointment, and was getting pretty bummed that my plan had failed for our fun getaway, while Brett tried to maintain a positive outlook. We had other activities planned, but I really wanted to see those darn balloons. After killing some more time, we heard cheers from the distance and realized that the green flag had been erected and that balloonists were now scrambling to get their balloons ready for take-off!

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The first balloon carried the U.S. flag and was accompanied by the National Anthem.

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Flags of all colors headed toward the sky and eventually some of the popular “shape” balloons followed. My favorite was the shark balloon, of course.

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We ate some spicy, but delicious, chile pepper nachos (yum) before we left and then headed back to the hotel to freshen up before embarking on the next part of our day. We headed to “Old Town” where I felt it was necessary for me to visit the Rattlesnake Museum, the largest collection of live rattlesnakes in the world.

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Brett was a good sport and it was a worthwhile stop that resulted in a new pair of lizard earrings and a rattlesnake t-shirt for myself (I chatted with the owner for a bit as we discussed our backgrounds in herpetology — he’s a very cool guy). We walked around the plaza, had a quick snack, then headed to Sandia Peak, the world’s longest aerial tramway!

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The ride had some amazing views and the views from the very top were even more spectacular, especially with some of the fall colors.

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We had made dinner reservations at the restaurant at the top (which also allowed us a discount on our tramway tickets), but I was disappointed to hear that all of the tables with views (the whole point of eating up there, since the prices were ridiculously marked up and reviews suggested that the food was mediocre for the cost) were occupied or reserved (which I found odd considering many were empty, though I guess I understand if people had previously requested those). I was bummed and felt that the hostess had an attitude, so we left out of principle. I let Brett choose our dinner spot and he selected P.F. Chang’s (he’s pretty easy to please), so we dined there and then I wanted to try out a local brewery, since I hadn’t been to one in awhile. After that, we headed back to our hotel for some sleep before an early morning flight the next day. Overall, we packed a lot of record-worthy activities (largest hot air balloon festival, longest aerial tramway, largest collection of live rattlesnakes, and “weirdest thing” in NM) into our schedule for just a short 2-day trip and we had a great time!

 

My First GoPro Video: Snorkeling with Whale Sharks in Mexico

Several months and several posts ago, I discussed my experience snorkeling with whale sharks for the first time (a bucket list item) and promised an accompanying GoPro video once it was edited. Well, long overdo, here is the video! Enjoy!

 

Bucket List Item Completed: See a Whale Shark

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Earlier this week, my friend and I had several days off and wanted to head somewhere new. We researched many options, but were leaning toward a scuba-related trip, preferably one with sharks, as an early celebration for Shark Week next month. During our research, we found that July is the peak season for whale sharks at a little island (only 7 miles long) called Isla Holbox (pronounced “hole-bosh” rather than “hole-box”) in Mexico. We looked into lodging options, which were affordable and plentiful, and the tour was reasonably priced as well. We decided to go for it. Using our travel perks, we flew into Cancun from Miami. The island is a few hours north of Cancun and a ferry is required in order to get to it. There are a couple of transportation options, so we decided to take the easier route and arrange a shuttle directly through the whale shark tour company. It was $65 per person (cheaper with larger groups) and included pickup from the airport, a shuttle ride of about 3 hours to the town of Chiquila, ferry ride to Isla Holbox (about 30 minutes), and a taxi to the house that we rented. The other option is to arrange for a taxi or shuttle to the bus station from the airport and take one of three daily buses to Chiquila and then purchase a ferry ticket to Isla Holbox. There were many affordable hotel and rental options on booking.com, so we found a house that a woman rents out, called Casa Francesca, which was only around $150 total for 3 nights (split between two people). It was a good 15-20 minutes from the main village by foot and it lacked A/C, but it was a nice, simple getaway steps from the beach. It had a nice rooftop for laying out with great views of the surrounding area. It was also a great spot for stargazing at night! The tour was booked for the following day, so we walked along the beach, relaxed in the hammocks at the house, and explored the town, ending the day with some great Mexican food and Sol beer on the beach on the first full day. Our tour (http://www.holboxwhalesharktours.com/) was booked for 7am on the next day and was $120 per person, which included snorkeling gear, plenty of time with the whale sharks, snorkeling at a nearby reef, lunch at a small island, and a boat ride by an area populated with flamingos. It was worth every penny. We brought our GoPros along and got some amazing footage (not too bad for our first time using them!). The guide was wonderful and the groups were small enough so that we had plenty of one-on-one time with the sharks. We saw a number of whale sharks, both from the boat and in the water. The ones that we saw were around 25 feet, though they can reach lengths of around 40 feet. They come to this area during the summer to feed on the plankton (they are harmless to humans and feed more like whales than sharks) and swam a lot more quickly than I imagined! I tried to keep up with them while in the water as much as I could in order to get some good footage. Here are some pictures from the trip, and I will try to update this with a GoPro video once I figure out how to best edit them!

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Bucket List Item Completed: Go to a Shooting Range

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A few months ago, I was browsing around on Groupon, since I had plenty of credit in my account from a returned Groupon about two years ago. I’ve been wanting to use it on a few of my bucket list items, and was lucky enough to find a Groupon for shooting at an indoor gun range. It was $45 for 2 people (a $95 value) and included gun rental, ammunition, and a brief instruction on how to use the gun. It was located about a half hour from where I live, so I went ahead and purchased it, assuming that someone would want to tag along. Well I’ve been so busy that I hadn’t had a chance to use it or ask anyone to join me, so I received an email recently saying that it was expiring on July 20th. One of my roommates had agreed to go with me and we had the day off yesterday, so I called the place and they said to just stop on it whenever, since they weren’t too busy. We got to Miami Guns and the two gentlemen working there were extremely friendly. They chatted with us a bit and gave us an introduction to shooting. My friend has shot guns before, so I was the newbie. We had 50 rounds of ammunition and were shooting a Ruger 22. The place was pretty empty, so we got a lot of one-on-one instruction. The first shot was somewhat scary for us, but after that, it was a blast! We even decided to purchase another 50 rounds. I noticed my shot improved dramatically the second time around. The guys helping us were great and we would definitely return! What a neat experience! Now I just have to upgrade to a 9mm…

Bucket List Item Completed: Visit Italy

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Last month, two of my good friends and I (my two adventure buddies from the trip to Peru last year from a previous post), took full advantage of my travel perks and planned a one-week getaway to Italy. I say planned, though in reality, we did no planning other than buying an Italian phrasebook and a Lonely Planet guide along with picking a week in May that worked for the three of us. There was no guarantee that we would make it, since my travel passes are not confirmed tickets and the flight that we wanted was oversold. We made it on with pure luck and embarked on an adventure throughout Italy, cramming as much in as we could and completely winging it every day. I will summarize the vacation in a later post with plenty of details in case you are ever hoping to visit the amazing country, which has so much to offer.

Life Experiences, Not Things, Make You Happier

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In case you were wondering what to spend your tax return on, you may want to avoid the mall and look into a fulfilling experience instead! Researchers have discovered, unsurprisingly, that people tend to spend their money on material goods, assuming that goods are of higher “value.” In reality, our long-term happiness depends more on experiences than on our possessions, which typically only deliver instant gratification. Consider purchasing a vacation package, trying a new activity for the first time, or even spending that money volunteering or taking a fun class.

Check out the article and video here:

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2014/04/03/life-experiences-happier-material-things_n_5072591.html