Project San Pedro (from the gate)

Fact: I always overpack.

Challenge: Survive 7 days out of a 20L pack.

Good luck.

For the next seven days I will be volunteering as an interpreter for a group of medical professionals in San Pedro La Laguna. San Pedro is a small, indigenous town on the southwest shore of Lake Atitlán in the Sololá region of Guatemala. Fun facts: Lake Atitlán is the deepest lake in Central America, it’s home to three volcanoes, and is regarded as one of the most beautiful lakes in the world (you know, per the interwebs).

The mission, Project San Pedro, provides sponsorship for children to attend school and staffs a small clinic offering a range of medical services (pediatrics, geriatrics, dental, etc.) to locals. Several times a year US missionaries visit and work the clinic in San Pedro as well as nearby towns. Nine years ago I had the opportunity to participate and interpret for the dental team–this year I am doing it again!

One of my personal challenges this time around was truly packing light. I made some last-minute cuts to my packing list and managed to travel with this pack and a small crossbody bag that will double as my day pack (one-pack travel has been on my mind a lot lately… hint, hint: future trips). I probably won’t be able to go “Live from Guatemala” due to limited cell service but I’ll try to post updates here and there (and definitely upon my return).

That’s a wrap on this quick update. ¡Adiós!

Dear Montmartre

Montmartre is a picturesque neighborhood in Paris–sitting atop The hill in Paris. It has often been featured in films for its charm and old-school, iconic Parisian feel. Montmartre is also the home of the Sacré-Coeur basilica–one of many iconic scenes in Paris with a bit of a sad back-story.

See, the basilica was originally built after the French-Prussian war (which France lost). Some say the basilica was built to honor the lives lost during said war (over 50,000) and others say it was built to expiate the crimes of the commune (Montmartre was the site of the first commune insurrection and the area with the most rebels, you know, per the internet). Over the years, many have come to marvel at its beauty. I heard from a local art student, Louie,  that some French people, especially older folks, see the basilica as a reminder of the people’s sins, the defeat and the many lives that were lost during the war.

The basilica is truly stunning and has a magnificent view of Paris as well. I absolutely loved visiting Montmartre and the basilica. It was a very windy day when I visited in late April and was very crowded so if you ever visit, set aside half a day to stay and have lunch there while you’re at it, they have some very cute cafés (of course they do).

Here’s a bit of Montmartre and Sacre-Coeur (to maybe inspire you to visit):

Madrid Misses

While I gave myself an entire eight days in Madrid, I still did not get to see/do everything I wanted. Some things I did not get to do because the facility was closed–like visiting the Palacio de Cristal and renting a paddle-boat at Parque del Buen Retiro. The park was closed during my time in Madrid due to trees needing upkeep after one fell and killed a person less than a month before my arrival. I also had a few fit sessions planned at the park (community classes) that, obviously, were cancelled.

I missed the Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum and the Santiago Bernabéu Stadium because of lack of energy. While in Madrid, I caught a pretty nasty cold and it left me in bed for two whole days! The rest of the trip, I had late starts to my mornings (in hopes to “rack up” energy) which meant less time.

I missed Barcelona for different reasons, one being time and the other money. When you’ve already booked your accommodations for the entire trip it’s not as easy to make last-minute changes to the itinerary. It also took about 5-6 hours to travel to and from Barcelona… for some reason, this time around the motivation to get on a train and go was not there. But that’s okay–there’s always next time!

The last set of “misses” is perhaps the biggest one: day trips to Toledo, Avila, Segovia and Salamanca. Day trips were squeezed out of the itinerary for the same reasons as Barcelona, more or less. I found myself having to pick between going out for tapas and going to bed early to be in a bus or train the next morning–drinks and tapas won 9 out of 10 times. Disclaimer: I did get to see Salamanca at night; I had to return to Madrid early in the morning so I missed my tour (but that’s another story).

Long story short–by the looks of this post, I already have a second trip for Spain and don’t even need to plan an itinerary! This first trip to Madrid was very much about relaxing instead of attacking a “must-see” list–and I enjoyed it that way. I think my body also needed the rest, especially after catching a cold–a most definitely not fun part of my trip.

 

(sort of) Abandoned Treasure

While in Paris, I visited Sainte Chapelle–a deconsecrated Catholic church that was originally built to house Louis XIV’s collection of religious Passion relics. While this place felt very sad (perhaps because it has been empty for so long), the beautiful stained glass work was breathtaking. The structure does show age and decay, despite it being preserved as a tourist attraction.

Sainte Chapelle had one of the longest queues I had to wait in during the entire time I spent in Paris–even with a Paris Pass! It’s a quick stop that no one should miss when visiting Paris.

My short stature made photographing this particularly narrow church a little difficult. Here’s a few of the more decent shots I was able to capture:

The Princess & The Hostel

Mom (via text): You mean “hotel,” right?

Me (via text): No, mom, I did not misspell that. I meant to write h-o-s-t-e-l.

Mom (via text): You have to share a room with others? That’s not a vacation! 

For my trip to Madrid, I decided to book a hostel in an effort to keep the exploring costs to a minimum. I had gone all-out the previous year because the Paris trip fell on my birthday but, this time around, the birthday girl was my sister and she had declined to come on the trip so I did not have any excuses to splurge. Of course, this shocked all my friends and especially my family. I was up for it, so I went into it without fear.

I ended up with a shared, mixed dormitory of eight people at TOC Hostel Madrid at Plaza Celenque. For someone who has never stayed at a hostel–with or without travel partners–this was a big risk to take. Luckily, I was very pleased with the facilities. Rooms were comfortable, bed was comfortable and even the bathroom space was comfortable. On a bathroom note–I only had to share showers and sinks with my male roommates–there was a separate W/C for girls in each mixed dorm. I had a few female roommates the first three or four days of the trip and then (eventually) I became the only girl in the room–not my favorite but also not the end of the world because it did give me a bathroom all to myself (there’s the princess for ya’). For the most part, my roommates were respectful and did not cause any trouble.

The hostel has a bar/lounge area, a room with a pool table and three other rooms with dining tables and a reading chair. There is also a fully-equipped kitchen where one can cook as desired as well as a fridge (that guy was pretty packed all. the. time.). There were also two computer desks (one with a stationary computer and one without, so as to bring your own). There is almost always someone in the common areas–which I loved. On days when it rained or I was just not feeling 100%, I would bring my computer to the lounge and edit photos or write for Diamonds & Baguettes without feeling like I was stuck alone in my room (which, you guessed it, I never was either!).

This hostel is different to others in the fact that it provides very good service for a facility of its kind (this is what I heard from other seasoned, hostel-loving travelers–both male and female). TOC also offers rooms of 6 and suites for 4 or 2 people. If I were to stay at TOC again (while traveling solo) I would likely go with a 4 or a 2 person suite (with the latter being just for myself). I pre-paid for breakfast every day of my stay but, since I was sick and slept in most days, I only had breakfast at the hostel on three days (it was good!).

The location of this hostel is probably where it gets the gold–upon exiting, if I turned left I was at Puerta del Sol in less than 3 minutes and if I turned right I was at Gran Via. If I walked straight, I was in Plaza Mayor–all in less than 5 minutes. That’s a pretty good location for a first-timer, if you ask me.

Long story short–if it is a hostel like TOC, yes, I would do it again. Anything less I probably would pass on. Out of respect for my roommates, I did not photograph the dorm. Below see pictures of the spaces in which I spent most of my “at home” time during the trip.

The Market That Takes the Win

Meet El Mercado de San Miguel–where the drink-while-you-shop game is taken up several levels. Mercado San Miguel is a (sort of) recently renovated, covered market where you can shop for anything from cold cuts to seafood to fruit and nuts, fritters, desserts… and of course, have drinks and tapas while you’re at it too! The market as it stands today (re)opened in 2009. Before then it was a traditional covered market, restored to its original glory in 1999 (and closed shortly thereafter because market stands could not compete with then-trendy supermarkets). The original structure was a church–that’s where it gets its name.

I went three times and it was always so packed I had to leave before I got to walk the entire market. On visit number two I bought zumo de naranja (fresh, squeezed, pulp-left-in, goodness from the gods kind of orange juice) and oh my word it was good! On visit number three, I decided to stop for a caña (beer) and ended up having some tortilla española with it. Because you can eat and drink at each stand (which double as a bar) I also got to help a handful of travelers who did not know enough Spanish to order what they wanted or understand what they owed (there’s my good deed of the day). The tortilla was good but I left all the bread (a miracle, really) and about ⅔ of the slice behind–I was simply too full. The beer was a light pale ale with lemon juice–definitely not a sour, it was actually a bit sweet (I have had the hardest time trying to find them here). Nonetheless, I enjoyed my impromptu early dinner and took advantage to snap a few more pictures.

Think of the market as a foodie’s haven–stations or shoppes all have glass displays that make your mouth water before you even ask what the dish is! It just looks super pretty–and you know I am all about pretty food (like the mini mozz salad pictured below). The market is modeled after Barcelona’s Mercado de la Boquería–offering nothing but the best in an almost celebratory atmosphere.

Side Note: This place reminded me of Ponce City Market in the historic Sears, Roebuck, & Co. building in Atlanta, GA (another one of my favorites). 

Better Than a Personal Paparazzi

On Easter Sunday I went on a much anticipated InstaWalk photoshoot experience. I’ll explain… it’s a walking tour of Madrid with great photo ops for Instagram as well as a photoshoot for you by Salamanca-based photographer Javier Gago. You can book this experience through Airbnb (and no, this is not a paid ad). Depending on the bundle you select, you will receive a variety of photographs in different settings. Before booking I messaged Javier to make sure we selected the bundle that best fit my needs/wants. He was prompt to reply and super easy to work with.

I loved this experience because when I travel alone, I rarely ever come back with (good) pictures of myself (that are not selfies). Javier was able to deliver a good amount of well executed photographs (and someway, somehow had me looking good in most of them)!

While one can book a private walk/photoshoot, I booked the experience with a group because I wanted to meet other travelers. It worked perfectly as I ended up exchanging contact info with two other solo travelers. The group meshed very well together so it was fun and easy to walk through each photo spot. For those like me who tend to be a bit camera shy, Javier is very personable and patient–he gives you ideas on how to pose if that is not your forte (me!).

The tour lasted just over two and a half hours. It began at the iconic Metropolis building and ended at the Debod Temple. We had a stop mid-tour for coffee, wine and beer at a cute and quirky bar (I missed taking the name of the place but I clearly recall a teal bench that I absolutely fell in love with).

I have gathered a few of the pictures I took while on the tour as well as a few of the pictures Javier took of me. If you ever find yourself in Madrid, now you have one more activity that comes with the bonus of great images/souvenirs of your trip! I would definitely sign up for this again.

Madrid Everywhere You Look

I will keep this short and sweet: Madrid is a very walkable city and I set out to photograph as much of it as I could. Here are some of the best street shots I captured around the city. No big monuments here, expect for Plaza Mayor–those will come later!

Most photos were taken as I moved between Plaza del Sol, Plaza Mayor, La Latina and Madrid de Austrias.

 

The Running of the… Food?

Leave it to me to pick a travel destination that is known for its great seafood dishes when I have a shellfish allergy (great). Fear not, however, for I have not gone without food (of course not, this is Spain and there is no such thing here)! I have been “running away” from places that focus mainly on seafood to stay on the safe side–I know what it’s like to experience an allergic reaction while being away from home and I do not intend to find myself in that situation again.

On day one I had dinner at La Buha Restaurant and Bar in La Latina barrio (neighborhood). I was accompanied by Enrique, a Dominican, Jersey-born and Madrid-raised staff member of TOC Hostel Madrid (where I am staying, but more on that later) and Marlen, a Mexican college student and my roommate for a couple of days. Before heading to La Buha we stopped at Black Mamba Cocktail Bar for drinks and tapas! We got to sit and chat with the owner (a Mexican who, after so many years here, now basically has the accent of a born-and-raised Madrileño) who is a friend and former coworker of Enrique’s–he recommended our next restaurant stop: La Buha. These two places had very different vibes but I enjoyed both.

Dinner at La Buha was great! Of course, we started off with more drinks and tapas. My drink of choice is always a red wine and tapas are always a surprise. At La Buha we were served sliced salmon over fresh cream cheese and herbs on toast–this has been the yummiest tapa I have had this week! For dinner we ordered three tostas (essentially, a heavy-topped giant piece of savory toast) and a goat cheese salad to share (between three). My tosta had solomillo ibérico (Iberian steak) and red pepper over brie cheese. The pepper gave the solomillo a sweet taste, which I did not expect but did not mind. The salad was probably my favorite part of the meal.

On Tuesday night I had dinner at Los 4 Robles and joined several others there who were watching the Juventus v. Real Madrid fútbol match (Real Madrid won, which made the night even better). I started off with wine and tapas (chips) and for dinner I had a Montadito de Jamón Ibérico–like a sandwich with Iberian ham and a home-made, crushed tomato topping (this is the only way I break my “allergen” rule… I still play around with tomato). The montadito was great even though I expected the cured ham to have a stronger flavor.

On two occasions I have had churros for breakfast (the first time at Chocolatería San Gines, a 24-hour joint in Madrid, and the second in Salamanca). Churros are fried dough sticks (much like a donut and sometimes bent into a loop) served with a thick hot chocolate for dipping (I tried drinking mine after eating the churros but did not find it appetizing). Unlike the churros I am used to seeing in the states, Spanish churros are not covered in sugar and cinnamon. My other breakfasts at TOC have been pretty consistent: tortilla española (potato and egg omelette that is heavier on potato than egg), zumo de naranja o manzana (either OJ or AJ), a croissant (sometimes chocolate, sometimes plain), and yogurt.

I have a Starbucks right across the street so I still get my coffee fix there as I have not heard any wonders or recommendations for Spanish coffee–yet (yes, this is me asking you for recommendations). I did teach the barista my usual drink at home (as of late) and they had never made it that way (you’re welcome, Spain, now your baristas know how to make a Black & White drink). Side note regarding Starbucks, here in Spain they ask you if you’d like a stronger coffee instead of having you buy extra shots (#appreciate) and they also ask if you want the milk froth left in the cup (I will never agree to that).

That’s enough food talk for now–¡hasta luego!