Ultimate relaxation in the Maldives

Dreaming of the perfect lazy, romantic, upscale vacation? Look no further than the Maldives, an atoll in the Indian Ocean.

As a part of our first journey to Asia, Husband and I spent 7 languid nights lounging at the Constance Halaveli resort in The Maldives. For more about The Maldives and how to get there, my prior post “The Maldives: Getting there is Part of the Fun!”

Choosing a Resort in The Maldives

One of the most daunting parts of the planning was selecting a resort in The Maldives. There are over 160 to choose from, each its own separate island. The vast majority of these earn 4 1/2 or 5 star ratings on Tripadvisor; it’s hard to go wrong from a quality standpoint.

Considerations when choosing a resort

Here are the major things we considered, not necessarily in order:

Type of Room: Does the resort offer over-water villas, and did they include a private plunge pool? We quickly realized that we wanted to experience what differentiates The Maldives from Florida or the Caribbean, and it’s definitely those beautiful over-water villas. This eliminated about half of the resorts, as not all of the islands support this type of structure.

Location: How long is the connection from Male ? With only 7 nights, we didn’t want to spend 4+ hours each way just getting to and from Male Airport

Food and Drink: Since each resort is its own island, visitors to The Maldives will be dining only at their resort. Most resorts offer some choice between a-la-carte, Half board (breakfast and dinner included), Full board (3 meals a day included). Some are fully All Inclusive (including alcoholic beverages), while others offer drink packages, and some throw in spa credit or other perks.

Reviews: Specific, recent reviews and comments on Tripadvisor, Booking.com, etc. I think I’ve mentioned before, I tend to focus on 3 and 4 star reviews, which in my experience generally contain the highest percentage of legitimate concerns and criticisms. If a resort hasn’t had a 3 or 4 star review in over a year, well… that’s probably a good thing?!

TOTAL cost: Making a few assumptions about our eating and drinking habits, and adding in the cost of transfers and gratuities, we tried to create an ‘apples to apples’ total cost comparison.

Booking Options: Where can we book, and can we leverage any Amex or Chase Ultimate perks? I looked at booking on the Amex and Chase websites, TripAdvisor, Luxury Escapes, Booking.com, and the resorts’ own websites. Once I had narrowed down the list, I also Googled “XYZ resort deals”.

Cancellation Policies: Although we have annual travel insurance policy to protect us in case of emergency, flexibility is still a consideration. How much upfront deposit is required? What are the cancellation timelines? Are there cancellation penalties?

Result

Duh, I’m a banker…. I made a spreadsheet. Of course I made a spreadsheet!

Our finalists:

  • JA Manafuru
  • Hideaway Beach
  • You & Me Maldives
  • Mercure Maldives Kooddoo
  • Obu Select Sangeli
  • Raffles
  • And the winner: Constance Halaveli

I am sure that any of these choices would have been just as satisfying, and I’m also sure I missed a few possibilities.

We ended up finding a great deal for the Constance Halaveli through a UK website called Turquoise Holidays – this is why the Google searches are an important step. I’m not sure whether Turquoise Holidays has a special relationship with the Constance resorts, or is perhaps an aggregator that had rooms to sell, but the total price for our stay was about $1k less than any other booking engine, including Constance’s own website.

Constance Halaveli Resort

Constance Hotels is a small, upscale chain operating only in the Indian Ocean: the Maldives, Seychelles, and Mauritius. I had first read about them through my good friend and fellow wonderful travel blogger, Bencard’s Bites, who wrote about her experience at a sister resort in 2014: Welcome to Paradise, it’s called Moofooshi.

Luxury with a decided foodie orientation? Sign me up!!

Travelers to Constance Halaveli are required to book a 1.5 hour seaplane ride from Male through the resort, who coordinates the flights on Trans Maldivian Airways.

View on arrival from the seaplane

On arrival, we were greeted “White Lotus” style at the pier, by smiling staff members holding up a Welcome sign. There were about 6 couples on the plane, and as we exited, our luggage was whisked away, while a Guest Relations staff member stepped forward to become each couple’s personal escort through the check-in process. Ours was Silvia, from Italy. She handed us a welcome drink as well as all of the vouchers and paperwork that came with our package, and explained the dining options, which I will review shortly. Silvia drove us via golf cart over the long wooden jetty to our Villa.

Welcome drink on arrival
Golf carts, they’re for more than just golf!

Our Villa

Silvia smiled when she saw our villa assignment, number 83 – I strongly suggest asking for this villa, as it’s situated on an angle such that the rear deck and pool are almost entirely private.

Villa #83

Although I had spent a lot of time reviewing photos and videos before arrival, we were still STUNNED by the size and beauty of our villa. Hands down, this is the nicest place I have ever stayed .

The main room, including the bed, with its gorgeous wood ceiling
The opulent bathroom with his and her closets
The private deck with loungers and an infinity plunge pool
Rear view of the villa

The villa is about 2/3 of the way down the jetty. Pros and Cons to this location: CON: it was almost half a mile just to get back to the resort. Given the intense heat, this sometimes seemed like a long walk, atlhough it was lovely in the cooler evening. Golf cart rides are always an option. PRO: The further out your villa is situated on the pier, the fewer rumbly golf carts pass your villa. More distance = more privacy. I’d choose this location again, overall.

The unbelievable WATER and sea life

What mesmerized me the most about our stay at Constance Halaveli was the abundance of sea life in the shallow waters surrounding our villa and the pier.

From our villa, a staircase descended into crystal clear blue water approximately 2 feet deep. That shallow depth extended several hundred yards, and the water teemed with a variety of fish including rays and sharks of the non-deadly variety. We could have snorkeled, but there was actually no need – we could just stand in the water and look at the fish and corals.

Periodically, a pod of jumping fish would swim rapidly by, with birds swooping and diving, trying to catch their dinner. Husband and I called it “The Show” and sat on the deck watching it in the mornings. As in, “Hey, honey, our show is on!” Who needs Netflix?

Jumping Fish and birds, aka the Daily Show ….

Ray, Ray, don’t go away
Baby shark, doo doo doo dooo

We also had several daily avian visitors as well as a large tropical carpenter bee (see: Xyocopa latices) who languidly floated from one end of our deck to the other all day long. I normally hate bees, but this one was just so….. mellow.

This is not how I normally spend my days in Delaware.

Dining

Constance Halaveli’s primary dining is at Jihaz, an open air buffet with an ever changing variety of choices. Yes, a buffet. But this buffet was a cut above. A chef prepared a variety of made to order dishes in line with the daily cuisine (Indian, Japanese, Seafood, etc.). In addition the buffet included plentiful bread choices, rice and soups, copious fresh fruits and vegetables, decadent deserts, and an ice cream bar.

Just a small part of the buffet at Jihaz

We never dined at the adjacent sushi bar (there was sushi available at the buffet), as it was only available certain hours. We tended to eat just twice a day. Sometimes breakfast, sometimes lunch, always dinner.

There is also a specialty restaurant, Jing, serving beautifully plated, seafood-heavy dishes. Jing is situated about halfway down the Jetty and right over the water. We dined here twice and found it to be a quiet, romantic experience.

cocktail hour at Jing, on the jetty
Sunset at an outdoor table at Jing. Covered indoor dining is also available

Resort amenities

The Constance Halaveli, like many Maldives resorts, is on a small island. The entire island is less than one square mile of habitable property. As a result, activities on the property are limited to the beaches, a resort pool, a tennis court, and a gym. The resort also offers various water-related activities such as a sunset cruise, kayaks, and floats.

Onsite Resort map

There is also a world-class spa, where massage rooms include a window to watch the enchanting sea life swim by below your massage table.

Hanging out in the resort’s infinity pool
Tree swing on the beach
Sunset cocktail hour
couples enjoy a sunset cruise

Candidly, if you are looking for an action-packed vacation, this is NOT your place. If you are looking to relax, rest, and recharge with nature and 5 star dining, then YES

Service and Atmosphere

Service at the Constance Halaveli was refined and utterly gracious, attentive without becoming bothersome. The staff stays on the island grounds, given the logistical challenges. They hailed from many countries, including India, Malaysia, the Philippines, and Ireland and were very well trained. Several of them, including the hosts and hostesses at both restaurants and several bartenders, knew our name and villa number on sight within 24 hours, as well as our drink of choice. One thing we couldn’t get used to was often being addressed as “mamsir”, which is a Filipino term of respect.

Our room attendant spent fully 30 minutes pulling apart palms to set this up the day before our departure….

Fellow guests during our stay, who hailed primarily from Asia and the UK, were probably 75% couples and 25% families on Easter break. Of the couples, probably 75% were under 30 and on their honeymoon; the rest were middle-aged and often celebrating a milestone anniversary or birthday. Socially speaking, given this guest mix, the Constance Haleveli is not likely to be a place where you will meet a bunch of new friends or party late into the night.

Should YOU go to the Maldives and the Constance Halaveli?

YES, if:

  • You want to disconnect from the world
  • You love the ocean and nature
  • You want a quiet, romantic atmosphere
  • You are OK with a long day (or days) of travel to and from your resort. And never leaving until checkout, once you are there.
  • You want to relax and spend hours each day sunbathing, swimming, watching the fish, reading, and napping
  • You want high- quality dining that’s effortless to reach and always available

NO, if:

  • You hate buffets
  • You want an unlimited choice of restaurants and cuisines to try each day
  • You are looking for an endless list of activities to keep you busy each day
  • You like to explore a new location each day
  • You want to party or go clubbing with the locals or other guests

What to pack for the Maldives:

Don’t go crazy overpacking. It’s hot, and it’s casual. Also your luggage is limited to 25kg (20kg “checked”, which means loaded in the back of of the cabin, and 5kg hand luggage. There are no overhead bins). But don’t forget:

  • Sunscreen, and lots of it!
  • Bug Spray
  • Swimsuits and coverups
  • A type “D” (British) plug adaptor, although many resorts will have them available
  • A hat or hats
  • Sunglasses
  • Water shoes, for walking around in the water which contains sharp rocks and coral
  • T shirts and shorts for lounging around your villa or the resort duringthe day
  • For the evenings:
    • (Ladies) Light dresses and sandals for evening dining. You can bring a light sweater or stole but the dining is open air and we were never cold or over-air conditioned
    • (Gentlemen) resort-wear short sleeve shirts and light slacks or shorts
    • Leave the fancy shoes at home, you will be walking on a wooden jetty or barefoot in the sand
Romantic evening beachfront dining for 2

We absolutely loved our stay at the Constance Haleveli in the beautiful Maldives. I finished 3 books in just a week, there is that much downtime. After the noise, color, pollution, and dense population of India, the Maldvies was a tranquil respite. Given the cost and distance from home, we are likely to return only if a)we are otherwise going to be in the area, or b)we hit it big in Atlantic City. But the Maldvies will surely be a unique and highly treasured pin in my world travel map.

The Maldives: Getting There is Part of the Fun

“It’s not the destination, it’s the journey”

Ralph Waldo Emerson

Following nearly three weeks in India visiting my Oldest, who accepted a short term assignment there, Husband made the journey to meet me, and together we embarked on a completely different type of adventure.

Once we knew I would be traveling halfway across the world from Lewes, Delaware to Bengaluru, India, we pulled up trusty Google Maps and considered our options for an add-on destination. The world sure is a big place, and I admit that I did not fully comprehend how big until I focused on this tiny corner of the Asian continent. Initially, we thought a trip to Singapore, Thailand, or Australia might make sense… until we realized such a pilgrimage would require another 8 – 12 hour flight, an unwelcome thought after already having traveled so far to get to India. Plus, we needed to eventually get home. Didn’t we?

As a result of thorough almost no research and extensive negligible spousal negotiation, we settled on the Maldives in roughly this manner:

Hey look, the Maldives are pretty close to India!

-Husband

Wait, isn’t that where they have those villas over the water? I’m in!

-Me

My knowledge of the Maldives prior to planning this trip was limited; I credit longtime friend, sister, and inspirational travel blogger Ellen Ferrara Bencard for sharing her own trip to these beautiful islands for what little I did know: Villas over the water, luxurious resorts, and excellent gastronomy.

About the Maldives

Trivia fodder

In just about two hours, we traveled from chaotic, noisy, bustling Bengaluru to what has to be one of the most peaceful spots on the planet. Here, blindingly white sands peak out from within clear, cerulean waters to form one of the world’s most iconic beach destinations.

Sunset over the villas in paradise…

Lying about 560 miles from the southern coast of India, the Maldives consists of an atoll with over 1,000 small islands.

While there are other beautiful beach destinations around the world, the Maldives “One Island, One Resort” concept makes it utterly unique. While there are numerous reefs, only about 150 of them boast enough land for human habitation. Each of these is home to one and only one luxury resort, hosted by well-known brands such as Four Seasons, Fairmont, and One and Only as well as by small, independent operators.

Aerial view of one of the islands; more islands can be seen in the upper right

The upshot of One Island, One Resort is unparalleled privacy and customer service, provided by highly trained staff and world-reknowned chefs, who live on-island for months at a time.

What is an atoll?

An atoll is a specific type of island formation that is characterized by a ring-shaped coral reef, often enclosing a lagoon in the center. Atolls are typically formed from the remnants of volcanic islands that have subsided over time, leaving behind a circular or oval-shaped reef structure. The reef itself is composed of coral and other organic materials that have accumulated over many years.

The Maldives’ unique geography is a result of an intricate interplay between tectonic forces, coral reef growth, and sea level changes. The atolls are surrounded by shallow lagoons and encircled by coral reefs, offering natural protection against the open ocean. The islands themselves are usually formed from the accumulation of sand and other sediments on top of the coral reefs.

Near the center lies Male, a two square kilometer island, the country’s capital and only city, home to roughly 150,000 Maldivians (somewhere around 40% of the population). The international airport lies on a newly built landfill island adjacent to Male, so all visitors must start their journey here. From Male, the various resorts can be reached by some combination of boat, private resort seaplane, or the national seaplane airline, Trans Maldivian Airways. The journey from Male to a specific resort can take as little as 15 minutes and as long as 4 hours. In addition to time, there is the cost to consider: transferring to a resort from Male can cost as much as $800 per person.

Arrival in Male and the Logistics of One Island, One Resort

Given the distance and lack of infrastructure among the Maldivian islands, logistics can be challenging, with the entire atoll stretching over 500 miles from north to south. Our resort of choice, the Constance Halaveli, utilized Trans Maldivian Airways for the roughly one-hour flight transfer.

Our arrival timing was a bit tricky. The resort islands do not have airports or runways, requiring a water landing and floating dock. Therefore, TMA will not fly anywhere near dusk or dark. In April, this meant no flights after 4pm. Since our flight from Bengaluru was not scheduled to land until after 3pm, we were cutting it too close, which meant we needed to stay the night in Male and transfer the next morning.

For our one night visit to Male, we chose not to stay in the crowded city proper, but on the smaller airport island known as Hulhule. The Ocean Grand hotel, sitting across the street from a beach, was not necessarily “grand” but it provided a clean room, a free shuttle to and from the airport, a view of the water, and free breakfast. We also enjoyed an excellent dinner at the hotel’s rooftop restaurant. No complaints here!

The Ocean Grand hotel in Hulhule, Maldives

Seaplane Transfer… the adventure begins!

The next morning we were back at Male airport, this time at the Trans Maldivian Airways terminal. “Organized chaos” is the phrase that comes to mind; each resort has a kiosk inside the open air terminal.

So many resorts, so little time…

We had received our flight time just a day or so before our journey; fascinating to me was that TMA does not operate on a set schedule but evaluates the number of passengers arriving and departing each resort and maps out a different set of routes each day. This was a little challenging for a planner like me to absorb, but upon seeing the system in action, I have to admit it seems to work!

First, they weighed us. It’s always comforting to know such care is being taken with our safety….. right? Right? We checked our bags, which were also carefully weighed, and were escorted to Constance Hotels’ private waiting lounge, which included an outdoor patio to watch the sea planes scurry about in the airport/harbor.

Your Seaplane Awaits….

After a very short wait we were brought into a small room for a safety briefing video with our flying companions. From there, we were escorted out to the dock (runway?), where flip-flopped pilots run the show

#lifegoals: To be a Maldivian seaplane pilot
Yep, I’m getting on that thing and flying over the water!

There were about 10 passengers on the plane, with all of our luggage piled in the rear. There are two pilots on each plane. We were told where to sit based on weight, but generally couples were able to sit together. Our entire plane was full of honeymooning Asian couples, with the exception of Husband and myself and one single British woman.

One of our pilots introduces himself… the plane is so tiny he can’t stand upright
My view just after takeoff, looking back at Male
One of the larger islands near the airport
On our way to Constance Halaveli!

Our blissful weeklong experience at the 5 star, luxurious Constance Halaveli is deserving of its own post, which will follow. For now, suffice to say that The Maldives and the Constance certainly qualify as a destination that is difficult to reach, but worth the effort.

Arrival at Constance Halaveli: Serious White Lotus/Fantasy Island vibes

Discovering History and Heritage in Karnataka

By this point in my Indian sojourn, I had been traveling for 8 hot, dusty days. I’m not embarrassed to say that after returning to Bengaluru from our 3 day excursion to Agra, I spent a day doing absolutely nothing at the JW Marriott Bengaluru. A little spa, a little reading, a little swim, a little glass of wine. A perfect little breather in bustling India.

Following this needed respite, Oldest and I set off to enjoy a full day private tour from Hidden Gems Tours, a local Bengaluru-based tour company. Our day started at 6:30 am because the company’s owner and our guide, Praveen, wanted to explore a new stop on this tour: an open air flower market along the Mysore road.

Flower Market, Bengaluru

As with many things Indian, the flower market is unstructured. There is no official opening and closing time, and no official location. As early as 4 am, sellers begin lining the streets with flowers including jasmine, roses, and orchids. Shoppers at the market can purchase flowers, or scrutinize potential vendors for future parties and weddings.

Breaking dawn revealed the colorful, noisy, fragrant, and chaotic market. An apt metaphor for Bengaluru itself.

Busy Flower Market in Bangalore
Flower petals litter the streets
an explosion of color and scent

Breakfast at Tiffany’s (sort of)

Next, we headed off down the Mysore road. Out of the packed city environs, and past fields of sugar cane, we stopped for breakfast. Audrey Hepburn was not to be seen, but Maddur Tiffanyss, about half way between Bengaluru and Mysuru, was a great pit stop. Praveen selected our meal, which included Maddur Vada, a delicious grainy fried pancake with dipping sauces.

Breakfast at Tiffanyss: Delicious Maddur Vada

Notably, Maddur Tiffanyss does not enjoy the greatest online reviews. Perhaps those negative reviewers did not have the advantage of an experienced local to place their order? I thought it was delicious.

Somanathpur and its Temple

Keshava (Somanathpur) Temple was our first and most intriguing historical stop. Constructed over a 5 year period beginning in 1268, Keshava Temple was built as a place of worship and a symbol of the power and prestige of the medieval Hoysala dynasty under Narashima III. Crafted of soapstone, the temple’s interior and exterior contain incredibly intricate carvings of various Indian gods and goddesses, along with elephants, war scenes, and flowers.

Still standing after over 800 years! (not Oldest, he’s only 27)
Vishnu rocks!
complex friezes outside the temple have survived heat and monsoons
Vishnu, gargoyles, snakes, and jewels
quiet, cool interior of Keshava temple with intricately carved pillars

While I found the Taj Mahal fabulous in its marble beauty, I was simply awestruck at the level and longevity of Somanathpur’s craftsmanship out of basic soapstone. I must have said “Wow” about a hundred times. No doubt, our visit was enhanced by the fact that there were only a couple of small groups visiting when we did, creating a huge contrast to the crowds at the Taj Mahal. We almost had the place to ourselves, allowing for quiet introspection. Thanks are due to the Archaeological Survey of India for restoring and maintaining Somanathpur beginning in the 20th century.

Mysore Palace

The 245,000 square foot Mysore Palace is located in central Mysuru city. The Palace is a large scale example of Indo-Saracenic architecture, which is characterized by a fusion of Indian, Islamic, and European styles. Glorious in its detail, the vibrant three-storied structure is made of fine gray granite. Open courtyards are scattered throughout. The colorful Palace is heavily decorated throughout with intricate carvings, detailed arches, stained glass, and a plethora of domes, turrets, and towers.

Photo challenge: getting the whole palace in one shot
colorful tile, gold leaf, and marble arched decor
the elaborate marriage hall at Myore Palace

The Maharajah Krishnaraja Wadiyar IV, descendant of a family who ruled Mysore for over 500 years, commissioned the current palace in 1897. It was completed in 1912. Although their power was abolished with independence from Britain in 1947, the progeny of the Wadiyar family still enjoy status and privilege in modern Mysore.

It felt like I could step right into this painting of the Maharajah arriving via elephant

I was impressed by the palace’s sheer size, opulence, and stature. However, something about the simplicity and lack of dazzle at Keshava Temple felt more authentic.

Srirangapatana

Lunch followed at the Hotel Mayura Riverview on Srirangapatana Island, just outside Mysuru. A peaceful oasis on the river greeted us, as well as a friendly monkey!

it’s not every day you get a selfie with a monkey…please don’t jump on my head.
Visitors enjoying a river ride in a coracle, an ancient Indian form of water transport

Next, we remained in Srirangapatana to visit the onetime summer palace of Tipu Sultan, which also served as the home of Governor Cornwallis. After the other two sites, this one felt quieter and more approachable. It is a smaller, two story home decorated with open air porches and beautiful tilework. I was reminded of the film “The King and I”, imagining ancient Asian royalty roaming these walkways.

summer breezes and cool tiles

Thank you, Hidden Gems Tours, for an unforgettable day trip to Mysore, Somanathpur, and Srirangapatana. In addition to challenging my spelling abilities, this tour illuminated the history, beauty, and culture of southwestern India. When compared to India’s more famous “Golden Triangle” of New Delhi, Agra, and Jaipur, the Mysuru region is often discounted as a travel destination. But its history is just a rich, its beauty just as diverse, and the crowds are notably less. I urge you to consider adding this region to your India travels.

Indian schoolgirls in Somananthpur

8 Tips for first time American travelers to India

Traveling to India is a unique experience. And while I did not even come close to covering the whole country, my recent experiences as a first time traveler may help you prepare for your own future trip to amazing India. While much of this advice is pertinent to anyone traveling to India (or on a very long trip in general), I think there are a few things specific to the experience of an American who has never traveled to India before. Hopefully you find these tips useful!

1. Prepare for the time change

No matter where you are coming from in the US, it’s a looooooong way to India. A nonstop flight will take at least 14 hours. My flights, with a layover in Amsterdam, cost me 22 hours. No matter what, you are going to ‘lose’ a day and a half or two days just to travel. (Want the good news? You get those days back when you head home!) Leave on Monday morning, and you won’t arrive to India until Tuesday afternoon at the earliest, and possibly Wednesday.

In addition, many stopover flights from the US arrive in India at very odd hours. My flight landed at 12:50 am Bangalore time.

Fun fact: despite its size, all of India is on one time zone. At my time of travel, the time difference between the East Coast and India was 10.5 hours – you read that right – time in India is not on the same ‘hourly’ schedule as the rest of the world. There is a metaphor there somewhere…

I have a few recommendations to help you manage the accompanying jet lag and time confusion you will inevitably experience.

  • Memorize two three quick time conversions. For example, noon in the US (East coast) is 10:30pm in India. And 3:00pm in India is 1:30 am in the US. This way, whatever time it is, your mind won’t struggle to think about whether it’s a good time to call home or look for the newest Wordle puzzle.
  • Begin slowly transitioning your sleep hours to move closer to Indian time. In the days leading up to your trip, go to bed a little earlier each night. Get up a bit earlier each day. Even a two or three hour shift in the right direction will help.
  • Try a jet lag management app such as Timeshifter. The app not only recommended when and how to begin ‘shifting’ my sleep schedule but when to sleep on the plane, when to avoid sunglasses (to maximize light exposure), when to drink coffee, and when to take melatonin.
  • If your flight arrives in the middle of the night, arrange for a hotel room for that night. You don’t want to arrive at the hotel at 3 am and then be unable to check in until 4pm. You want your bed ready to go!

2. Don’t rent a car

I know, you’re a great driver. So am I. So is Dear Husband. We never ever make driving mistakes at home (she said facetiously). At home, though, there are these nebulous things called “The Rules of the Road”. Things like, use your mirror and use a signal before you change lanes. Follow the speed limit, more or less. No cows allowed on the highway. Following these rules helps us turn our small errors around home into near misses rather than collisions. We also more or less know our way around, and are familiar with the road signage.

None of this will be the case in India.

Perhaps the most surprising part of my trip was the traffic and roads in Bangalore, Agra, and Mysore. I didn’t even visit some of the most congested areas, such as New Delhi and Mumbai, and I can only imagine.

Lane markings? A mere suggestion. Signals? Never. Horns? Constant. Red lights and one way signs? Worth occasional consideration. Bicycles, cows, overloaded trailers, scooters with entire families on board, you name it…. they all share the road and are all going as fast as they can to get there. If they can pass you on the right, they will. If they can pass you on the left, they will. Sometimes with a friendly ‘beep beep’, sometimes not.

Simply put, it’s chaos. Let someone who is local and experienced do the driving for you, whether you hop in a Tuk Tuk, take a bus tour, or hire a driver for your entire trip. I cannot recommend this strongly enough.

3. Get professional travel medical advice

Our immune systems are conditioned to home. American water, American air quality, American insects, etc. In addition, although the COVID-19 world health emergency is officially behind us, there can still be travel restrictions and requirements. Further, I’ll take it as a given that you would probably prefer to avoid landing in an Indian hospital with a serious illness. For all of these reasons, consider professional travel medical advice.

I went to Passport Health, a nationwide chain of travel medical advisors overseen by doctors. I’m sure there are plenty of other options, so ask your own doctor first, particularly if you have any kind of medical issues.

In addition to a tetanus booster, I chose to receive a polio booster and typhoid vaccination. I was also advised that malaria is a problem in India, and chose to take an anti-malarial drug beginning a few days before my trip. I purchased strong repellent as well.

While I guess I will never know whether these steps prevented me from falling seriously ill, I know that one of the recommendations was, as Mastercard puts it, priceless. I purchased two “DiaResQ” pills. Which leads me to my next piece of advice…

4. Research and understand Indian food

Indian food is divisive in my circles. Some of my friends and family love it, some not so much. I generally enjoy it, although I am not a fan of food so spicy that I don’t even know what I’m eating. Everyone has different spice tolerance, and only you can know yours.

But, even if you love and ingest spicy Indian food regularly at home, be aware that you still have a good chance to contract what’s lovingly known as “Delhi Belly” if you are in India for any length of time.

For the majority of Americans, an Indian menu will contain a number of unfamiliar items. I’ve definitely heard of, and enjoyed, tikka masala. Tikka darbari? Not so much. Tikka angare? Nope. Before I left, I googled “Indian foods ranked by spiciness” and memorized a few of the names on the bottom of the list. I also discovered some very flavorful, rich foods such as dosa and maddur vada, which are grain based and mild.

I heeded the advice and cautiously brushed my teeth with bottled water, and avoided ice in my drinks, even at the swanky JW Marriott. I ate several traditional Indian meals during my first few days in India, but also chose more familiar foods such as eggs and pizza to balance things out. Nonetheless, I fell victim. Suffice to say, white rice became my best friend for a few days.

My best advice? Ask servers, do your research, skip street food, avoid unpurified water, …. and be prepared with your anti-diarrheal medication of choice.

5. Hire local tour guides

While a well-written guide book or recorded app can certainly give you the background and history of a given city or tourist site, choosing to self educate, particularly in India, will rob you the opportunity to really hear about the perceptions and experiences of its vast populace.

Our guides in Agra, booked through Pacific Classic Tours India, and Bangalore /Mysore booked through Hidden Gems Tours, offered great logistical advantages (planned by locals who know and understand that traffic referenced above). They took us not only to the most famous of Indian tourist sites, but to little-known ‘hidden gems’ such as the Bengaluru flower market. I highly recommend both companies.

Most importantly, however, they gave us undisturbed one-on-one time with Indian citizens who were more than happy to educate us about everything from local holidays and traditions, to insight on family life, to the political landscape and economic challenges faced by Indians. While I enjoyed learning about Indian rulers from several centuries ago, I will always treasure the new awareness I gained as a result of these conversations.

6. Absorb a little Indian culture before you go

Whether it’s a raucous Bollywood movie or a fictional book set in India, spend some time before your trip getting to know India. It’s just more fun when you know what to look for – such as the delicate henna tattoos I saw on some of the women attending an engagement party held at our hotel, or the thrumming beat of Indian music as I passed by the nightclub. India’s many customs are unique, and there is nothing like a good story to make them come to life.

I watched Oscar-winning Bollywood movie “RRR” on the plane. I’ve seen Slumdog Millionaire, but I learned from one of my guides that Indians don’t particularly embrace that film, seeing it as spreading stereotypes about India. A few of the books I read prior to my trip were:

  • The Henna Artist, and The Secret Keeper of Jaipur, both by Alka Joshi
  • The Storyteller’s Secret by Sejal Badani
  • The Life of Pi by Yann Martel
  • (parts of ) a translation of the Bhagavad Gita, an ancient Hindu scripture

Reading A Passage to India and Siddhartha back in high school does not count, although I did that too.

7. Especially for women

So I debated whether to include this section. I am not in any way looking to create a stir or criticize another culture. I also won’t even pretend to be fully educated on the treatment of women in India. I just think American women should be aware that it simply won’t be quite like home when you visit India. This is my perception, not a judgment.

I guess the best way to put it is that different countries make progress on Women’s rights at different rates. Back in the 1980s, walking to work in downtown Chicago in my ‘9 to 5’ office attire, I could expect a whistle or two from a construction worker or a guy driving a big pickup truck. It felt a bit icky, and sometimes intimidating depending on the situation. India is a little like that.

You will rarely see an Indian woman walking alone in the city – only with her male partner or with a bunch of other females. I found out the reason when I took a solo walk around Bengaluru one day. I was honestly was a little uncomfortable when some of the tuk tuk drivers tried to lure me for a ride, shopkeepers beckoned me inside for a bargain, or as I passed a staring man on a park bench. Men you have never met will not hesitate to look directly at you and get physically closer than you are likely used to.

To be clear, I never felt unsafe on my walk, which was in the middle of a busy Wednesday afternoon. But I was glad to re-enter the cool, controlled environment of the JW Marriott.

As another example of what I mean, one of Oldest’s female American colleagues, who has blond hair, mentioned that sometimes people (men, women, and children) would not only stare but just reach out and touch her hair, because it’s so unfamiliar to them. I had read before my trip that “personal space” has a very different definition in India than it does in the US. It makes sense, when you think about the incredible population density in Indian cities. It’s also very true.

GO! And take it all in

Looking back at what I have written above, I realize it may seem like a multitude of dire warnings. Traffic, food, jet lag, personal space … yes, they are all challenges. But with great challenges come great rewards, and that is especially true with traveling to India. So for my final #toptipforindia, I’ll steal from Nike and say: Just Do It.

While you are there, take time to look around you. Don’t just go to the Taj Mahal and post it on social media and spend the rest of your day scrolling. Watch local TV. Look at magazines and billboards. Eat in small local restaurants (with care, see #4 above…). Shop in the little shops and bargain and feel the silk. See the colors, hear the sounds, talk to the people. It’s beautiful, and noisy, and chaotic, and lively. It’s exotic, for an American, and you may just develop a new appreciation for the Stars and Stripes – as well as a taste for even more foreign travel.

A tough act to follow….. Time in Agra after visiting the Taj Mahal

After visiting the Taj Mahal at sunrise, we continued our tour of Agra and environs with our tour guide, Mahesh from https://www.discoverydreams.com/about-us. You will be happy to know that the first thing we did was find a restroom and I was able to fully cleanse my bird-soiled hand before we continued our tour around Agra. Much better. As we exited the complex we stopped for photographs of a lovely red sandstone outer building with an arched passageway:

No, I didn’t call the arches to plan our outfits

Mahesh explained a bit more about the recent history of Agra. Just a few decades ago, the city boasted a population of 6 million whose lives were centered not around its famous monument, but around numerous local factories. Unfortunately, these factories contributed heavily to the locally polluted air, and the government determined that the beautiful marble facade of the Taj Mahal was suffering as a result. Given the value of the Taj as a tourist destination, the decision was made to relocate a number of these factories in an attempt to clear the air. This led to an anomaly for India: a declining local population. Agra is now home to about 2 million people.

Eventually, as so often happens, recognition bloomed that perhaps the relocation efforts had gone too far, and Agra was a city in decline. So, the government decided to use financial incentives to promote the various local arts to the city’s 50 million+ annual tourists: carpet making, marble carving, and jewelry made with local gems among other items. The next part of our tour included artisan demonstrations in each of these areas, along with the inevitable pushy sales pitch. Did I cave and buy something? Read on to find out….

Artisan Shopping in Agra

The showroom of Diamond Carpets (https://www.diamondcarpets.com) is located in the middle of downtown Agra. Our visit began with a quick explanation of the process of weaving wool and silk into beautiful rug creations. We were shown photos of the main carpet factory located a few miles away.

carpetweaving in process
women use their strong toes to edge the rugs

Next, we were taken to the display room, which housed hundreds of gorgeous rugs. One might say they rolled out the red blue carpet for us…

Showing us rugs for sale…. dare I ask the price of this one?

I made the crucial ‘mistake’ of asking the price, assuming it would be completely exorbitant, letting me off the hook with a quick “no, thanks that’s out of my price range”. For reference, last year on a cruise stop in Istanbul, Husband and I attended a similar carpet factory display, where the small but beautiful rug I admired could have been mine for a mere $20,000. So, that was my expectation here. I have a puppy at home, so the rugs tend to come from Wayfair and Home Goods. But… thanks to the government incentives, which included free shipping to the US, the price on the rug I liked was just a fraction of my prediction.

We negotiated the price a bit and I got another 15% or so off the original quote. Mahesh had told us to always negotiate in India! When you buy a rug, you sign the back to ensure that the one you receive is the one you chose. This lovely rug now sits in my office below my desk as I type, a wonderful memory of India. I have no regrets.

signing my new rug!

As our day continued, we also visited a marble carving exhibition and a jeweler, making a few more small purchases. Hopefully we helped the local economy.

Artisans insert gems into marble

Agra Fort

Today’s agenda included the two less famous but equally historic buildings in the Agra area: 1)Agra Fort, and 2)the Tomb of I’timad-ud-Daulah, also known as the “Baby Taj”.

Agra Fort, an enormous red sandstone complex, dates to the 14th century and once housed the members of the Mughal ruling family. At the time of the Fort’s construction, Agra was the capital of this northern region of India now known as Utter Pradesh, to be replaced by Delhi about 100 years later.

Imposing entrance to Agra Fort

Covering roughly 94 acres, Agra Fort borders the same Yamuna River as the Taj Mahal. The Fort is full of both Islamic and Indian architectural influences, as well as much of the same carved marble as seen at the Taj. In the heat of the midday March sun, it’s not difficult to imagine royal court members seeking cool shade in its many arched, open air corridors.

Inside Agra Fort
a peek at the Taj Mahal through one of the Fort’s windows
Tourists inspecting the gold infused ‘master bedroom’
The Fort’s courtyard almost looks like a University campus quad…
Touring Agra U

Baby Taj

After a quick traditional Indian buffet lunch, we wrapped up the day at the the tomb of I’timad-ud-Daulah, nicknamed the Baby Taj due to its similar architecture: a central marble dome surrounded by four tall minarets. Given the nickname, we made the natural but erroneous assumption that this much smaller monument was inspired by its larger cousin. Nope!

I’timad-ud-Daulah was an exiled emir of Persia, and also the grandfather of Mumtaz Mahal, Shah Jahan’s favorite wife who is entombed in the Taj Mahal. Baby Taj was commissioned by one of I’timad-ud-Daulah’s daughters in 1622, almost 10 years before construction began on the Taj. Both buildings represent a period in which local architectural trends had shifted toward more white inlaid marble and less red sandstone.

Like the Taj Mahal, the grounds of the Baby Taj include symmetrical gardens criss-crossed with water courses and walkways.

Baby Taj – a much smaller tomb than its more famous neighbor, as illustrated by the humans in the doorway

Perhaps the most notable difference between the Baby Taj and its more famous cousin is lack of maintenance. The structure’s interior shows its true age like a Real Housewife without her makeup.

faded carving surrounds an interior doorway
inside the dome, imagine the vibrance long ago…
View of one of the red sandstone entrances from inside the Baby Taj

Unlike the heavily trafficked Taj Mahal, here a visitor can get close to the monument to inspect the beautiful carvings, take interior photographs, and experience the peaceful setting. Despite the damage wrought by age (and gem thieves), the authenticity of this structure shines through.

Around Agra

Our long, hot day in Agra came to an end in the late afternoon, as Mahesh transported us back to the Doubletree to relax before tomorrow’s journey back to Bangalore. Once again we reflected on the divergence between the tourist-filled, opulent royal structures surrounding this former capital city, and the lifestyle of its current inhabitants.

A typical Agra streetscape
children play as mom watches from the doorway
A family walks among the crumbling buildings
Monkeys climb the walls of an old factory

Evening in Agra, with puppets!

A review of our day in Agra wouldn’t be complete without mention of the late night entertainment. Too exhausted to explore any further, we dined at the Doubletree’s restaurant, Kebab-e-Que (https://www.hilton.com/en/hotels/agrdtdi-doubletree-agra/dining/) where a guitarist played the same 4 chords on every song. I kept hearing “Breakfast at Tiffany’s”, which became tomorrow’s ear worm, because of course it did. We left the restaurant full of good food and wine and ready for bed, only to find the lobby decorated with candles and greens and the number “60”. Shamefully, we did not ask what this was about. Maybe the 60th anniversary of the hotel?

I honestly do not know what was going on here

The lobby festivities were highlighted by a young Sikh performer who showcased his family’s handmade animal menagerie. Waiting for us, alone, he could not contain his excitement at finally having an audience.

I bought the bright red elephant in the back ūüôā
A little culture in the Doubletree Lobby! Turn sound on

Our new friend had also set up a stage for a very unique puppet show. He invited the boys to don turbans …

Awesome headwear

If you are my age, you may remember ultra-kind Mr. Rogers and his somewhat creepy puppet show in the Neighborhood of Make Believe? This was kinda like that.

Watch out for the snake… and turn the sound on

Our time in Agra truly came to a memorable end! Once again I would like to thank Mahesh and Shakul at Pacific Classic Tours India (Trip Advisor Link: https://www.tripadvisor.com/Attraction_Review-g297683-d6758183-Reviews-Pacific_Classic_Tours_India-Agra_Agra_District_Uttar_Pradesh.html) for arranging a fabulous trip to all of Agra’s highlights. In addition to checking off an ultimate bucket list destination and a Wonder of the World, we learned so much more about India’s history and culture. We were also once again surrounded by kind, friendly, colorful people who helped create the best travel memories.

The Taj Mahal. And, birds gotta do what they gotta doo doo…

One of the Seven Wonders of the World, it’s the first thing most people think of when they imagine visiting India. Although I don’t always like to follow “can’t miss” and “must do” lists, come on… it’s the Taj Mahal!

So, as soon as I knew I was headed to India, I researched the best way to visit the iconic structure. The Taj is located in Agra, a small city in the north central part of India and almost 2000km from Bengaluru. The closest major city is New Delhi, about a 2.5 hour car ride away.

A word of advice

Many tour operators offered a “day trip” to the Taj from Bengaluru. This would have involved:

  • hotel pick up at 6 am
  • 45 minute ride to BLR airport
  • waiting around the airport
  • 2.5 hour flight to New Delhi
  • 2.5 hour car ride to the Taj
  • An hour or so at the Taj, and maybe lunch
  • 2.5 hour car ride back to New Delhi
  • waiting around the airport
  • 2.5 hour flight back to BLR
  • 45 minute ride back to Bangalore city

No, thank you.

Instead, I chose a trip arranged through https://www.discoverydreams.com, leaving on a Friday morning, with two nights in Agra, and returning on a Sunday. Best of all, the company (also known as Pacific Classic Tours India or PCTI) arranged the trip via a direct flight to Agra rather than New Delhi, saving a lot of time in the car. This tour is only available on certain days of the week, as the direct flight from Bengaluru to Agra only operates on a few days, and the Taj itself is closed to the public on Fridays for religious purposes.

Take your time with this place, it’s worthwhile.

journey to agra

The flight itself was uneventful but the arrival was a bit different. We flew on IndiGo, a quirky no-frills airline reminiscent of Jet Blue or Southwest in the US. Riding buses to the tarmac for a domestic flight experience at BLR provides that up close and personal experience:

That gorgeous baby had more gold jewelry than I do

Unfortunately, I have no photos of our arrival at Agra airport, because it is actually a military airport that only recently opened to commercial air traffic. NO PHOTOGRAPHY signs and armed guards greeted us. Next, we were required to take a bus to the prison-like gated entrance of the airport. Although the 1/2 mile bus ride was purported to be free, one of the armed guards wanted to collect a fee of 50 rupees (about 61 US cents). Needless to say, we riders complied.

Our tour guide for the next two days, Mahesh, was positioned at the airport entrance gate to meet us in an air conditioned vehicle. The airport was only about 10 minutes from the small city of Agra, where our package included delicious late lunch at the Salt Cafe. Then off to our hotel, the Doubletree Agra https://www.hilton.com/en/hotels/agrdtdi-doubletree-agra/

My room had a teeny tiny view of the dome of the Taj Mahal. A newly constructed elevated railway obscures the view from this side of Agra (unfortunately including the now inaptly named “Taj View Hotel” nearby). Progress and history compete as everywhere.

my first “view” of the Taj Mahal

Taj Viewpoint in the evening

After a short rest at the hotel, Mahesh picked us up again to get our first real view of the Taj. Since it was a Friday, and the mausoleum was closed, our only option was to proceed to the north side of the Yamuna river to the “Taj Viewpoint”. We dodged rickshaws, stray dogs, monkeys, children and camels on the approach to the viewpoint.

Since the monument is completely symmetrical, from either direction the view is identical. The view you are most likely familiar with looks across well-designed entrance pools and gardens; From the rear, the view crosses a nearly dry riverbed full of weeds, cows and goats grazing . The striking divergence of the opulent marble monument, the pollution-hazed sunset, the peasants with their cattle, and my own sheer wonder added to my sense of awe.

and there it is…..
and here we are!

After a half hour so of wandering, photographing, and simply gazing in speechless amazement, we headed back to the hotel. Tomorrow, we will visit at sunrise and learn more about the history of the Taj Mahal. But for now, driving away from the Viewpoint, I was struck by the “neighborhood” here. Just 1/4 mile from one of the world’s most famous monuments, people live with no running water, no electricity, wandering animals, and scattered trash. One of humanity’s greatest architectural and artistic accomplishments and societal failures in such close proximity. Jarring, to say the least.

Across the river from the Taj Mahal

Despite jet lag and travel weariness, I had trouble sleeping that night.

Sunrise at the Taj mahal

The next morning, we arose early to arrive at the Taj Mahal just before sunrise. The ethereal light attracted plenty of other visitors, but knowing the heat would rise later in the day, we knew this was the best time to be here. As a bonus, the photography is a bit surreal too. In some of the photos, the Taj almost looks like a painted backdrop.

crowds at the Taj gate at sunrise.
spooky look toward the hazy sunrise
that iconic view
here we are standing beside a painting of the Taj Mahal…. (jk)
fun with angles and perspective

A little brief history of the Taj Mahal: The Taj Mahal was commissioned in 1631 as a mausoleum by the Mughal emperor at the time, Shah Jahan, to house the remains of his favorite wife, Mumtaz Mahal. Per our tour guide, she was one of one of three wives, and bore him 13 children. Pregnant with their 14th, on a camel back ride across the country for some royal purpose or another, she became physically distressed and lost both the child and her life. Construction was completed in 1648. I’m thinking the Shah felt a little guilty… hence the huge marble structure that virtually glows in the sunlight. There are two smaller mausoleums on either side of the structure for the other two wives that seem like (and most likely were) an afterthought.

Details of the Taj Mahal:

Of course I knew the Taj Mahal was a white building, and made of marble. What I didn’t know is that each and almost every inch is full of carvings, jewels, and intricate writings that can only be seen up close. Here are a couple of photos attempting to capture that detail:

The entrance approach up close
close up showing both the colorful inset stones, gold leaf, and some of the damage inflicted by years of people and weather
another close up from outside

One of the more fascinating aspects of this detail is the red stone shown below. Holding our iPhone flashlights up to the stone created a unique glow that blushed across the entire stone. Sadly, many of the 28 types of jewels originally used in the Taj Mahal’s construction were stolen over time.

The yucky part

By now, you may be wondering about the bird doo doo referenced in my title. OK then, since you asked….

The indoor of the mausoleum houses the tombs of both Mumtaz Mahal and the Shah who created the tomb. No indoor photos are allowed. I do have this one, though, which shows my hand on the railing that keeps visitors from touching the inside walls:

I guess I really am over COVID, because I probably shouldn’t be touching that….

Inside of the Taj dome are 82 foot walls. While the structure is enclosed, the doors are tall enough that a few of the birds that surround the monument must find their way in periodically. They happily nest in the windows and carvings above. I don’t know what kind of bird blessed me, but my hand was exactly as shown on one of these railings when PLOP! a cold, nasty liquid was discharged right onto the back of my right hand. Oh, my kingdom for a tissue…..! I’ll bet there aren’t too many people who can say they have been pooped on inside the Taj Mahal. I feel soooo special. Karma for life, anyone?

bird, schmird… I’m still smiling .. check out the fun reflection in my sunglasses – thanks Mahesh!
Taj Mahal at sunrise

In my next post, more to come about the rest of our time in Agra, which included artisan demonstrations, a visit to Agra Fort and the “Baby Taj” monument, and a… puppet show. Yep, a puppet show.

How do you spell colorful chaos? B-E-N-G-A-L-U-R-U….

Hello readers! It’s been awhile, and I have so much catching up to do. Since my last post, I have gleefully emerged from COVID and travelled to Greece, Rome, Spain, Turks & Caicos, and more. Also, after over a year of ‘commuting’ from the Delaware beaches to New Jersey, I have also thrown in the proverbial towel and retired from banking. So you know there are many more great trips (and more blogging) planned!

Bengaluru’s state government building, Vidhana Soudha, lit up in bright colors for the celebration of Ugadi, a New year holiday

For my first post retirement trip, I went for big adventure, thanks to my Oldest child. He took a short term work assignment in Bengaluru (formerly Bangalore) India, therefore I HAD to go visit him. It was my first trip to Asia and my first trip to a country more populous than the United States. With only a few months’ notice to plan the trip, I started where I always start: with a map and Google.

Check out my advice for first time American travelers to India here: 8 Tips for First Time American Travelers to India.

Bengaluru is located in the southern third of India , in an area that was once part of the Mysore dynasty. From here, it’s over 600 miles to Mumbai and over 1300 to New Delhi. Bengaluru is known as the “Silicon Valley of India”, due to the predominance of tech workers: in addition to its own budding tech industry, this area primarily functions as the back office of American and European Big Business. In 2023, Bengaluru is expected to grow by 6%. It’s one of the fastest growing cities in a fast growing nation.

India is geographically about one-third the size of the lower 48 states, but its population is nearly 4x that of the US. In April, 2023, it is believed that India has now achieved the status of becoming the most populous country in the world, surpassing China. In fact, per Pew Research, India’s population has grown by more than 1 billion people since just 1950.

Arriving in Bengaluru, the pace of that growth is evident. BLR airport’s terminal is new and arguably a lot nicer than Newark, and additional terminal work is underway. In fact, there was construction pretty much everywhere. An elevated train will soon whisk travelers from BLR to the central city, currently about a 40 minute ride on the highway. Along that highway, signs selling suburban real estate and newly built high-rises abound, along with looming office parks boasting familiar US and European corporate logos.

All this growth comes with a cost, however. From my hotel window, the air pollution is evident. Bellandur Lake, the largest in this ‘garden city’, famously caught fire in 2015. The pollution is a function of vehicles, road dust, trash, and construction. I won’t go on a climate change rant here, but I have serious concerns about the future livability of this city if things don’t improve.

Hazy sunset from the 12th floor of the JW Marriott, Bengaluru

And traffic? I will henceforth NEVER AGAIN complain about the traffic on Rt 1 in Delaware or the Garden State Parkway. It’s difficult to describe, but I’ll try. Imagine, if you will …..

getting up close & personal in Bengaluru traffic

1)no obedience to lane markings

2)drivers ignoring traffic signals and one-way street indicators;

3)all sizes of vehicles, from bicycle to scooter to agricultural cart to semi-truck sharing the same road and lanes, with no rules governing left, right, fast, slow, or otherwise;

4)construction cones and barriers everywhere; and

5)horns. Never ending horns.

“Beep Beep Beep” was the lullaby to which I fell asleep each night in my hotel room 12 floors up. In India, they use horns to let other drivers know they are overtaking them. Which is … constantly. To the left, to the right, it doesn’t matter, just beep beep and keep going. Other vehicles drive within inches of one another. You can count the chin hairs on your neighboring driver. My American vehicle would never make it here, because it beeps a warning whenever something is a couple of feet away, and includes an auto brake feature. In India, it would simply melt down.

But from within all the chaos stemming from Bengaluru’s fast growth and dense population, shines India’s radiant heart. The people I encountered in India were simply beautiful, inside and out. Warm, and always willing to share a smile and an education. Despite the pervasive and unending traffic, I never saw a single ‘flipped bird’ or heard a curse word.

Indian food is loaded with spices, many unfamiliar to Americans – because to Indians, a lack of spice is cold, bland and tasteless; a true metaphor. Their thirst for knowledge is evident in the familiar sight of schools under construction and uniformed children toting books. Their love of bright colors as reflected in clothing, temples, and food is palpable. From what I experienced, India’s cultural motto might well be ‘the more the better’! Whether from buildings, vehicles, colors, spices, or people, the buzzing chaos somehow combines into a fascinating harmony.

boy in bookstore
Dresses for sale on Commercial Street, Bengaluru
Bengaluru Flower Market
Bengaluru Flower Market at 6:45 am
Smiling woman at Bengaluru Flower Market

From our tour guides, to Tuk Tuk drivers, to hospitality personnel, to shopkeepers, everyone I met shared a sense of vibrancy and positivity. India may be challenged by pollution, fast growth, and poverty, but if its peoples’ attitudes matter, these challenges will be faced with relish in the decades ahead.

COVID-19 Journal: Banker Chick Doesn’t Travel…. Exploring Slower Lower Delaware

Make no mistake – I love traveling internationally.  I love the challenge and excitement of learning about a different culture.  I love trying (usually poorly) to communicate in a foreign language. I love navigating the unfamiliar. I love embarking on an airplane to travel somewhere, anywhere,  far away.  But sometimes it’s nice, and sometimes it’s necessary, to stay closer to home.

In addition to flexibility in pandemic times, here are some other advantages of a closer-to-home trip:

  • Bring anything, and anyone, that fits in the car, including the dog or cat!
  • If you can‚Äôt schedule a long trip, a short one still works – even a day trip.
  • No jet lag  or time zone adjustment
  • No costly airport parking, TSA lines, or mechanical delays
  • Given proximity and lower cost, frequent return trips are possible if you fall in love with the destination

Just like everyone else, my 2020 travel plans were derailed by COVID-19.   This year’s scratched itineraries included a wine tasting trip to Napa Valley in April,  a trip to London and the Cotswolds in June, and a trip to Lake Como and Tuscany (more wine!) in September. Instead, I have spent these months of COVID lockdowns and restrictions in a much more accessible location:  Lewes, Delaware.    We had planned to spend many summer weekends in Lewes this year, but when the virus began its assault on the New York area in March, like many second homeowners in the area, we grabbed our stuff and drove over the giant Delaware Memorial Bridge to our beach escape. Husband and I purchased a second home here two years ago with an eye toward eventually retiring in this tax-friendly state, that has the added advantage of being relatively close to jobs and kids in New Jersey.

Delaware is proud to be the first established state in the US,  but remains one of the smallest with fewer than 1 million inhabitants and only covering about 2500 square miles –  less than 2% of the size of California.  Delaware’s largest city, Wilmington, has only 70,000 residents,  and the entire state is still covered by one area code,  302. Our home is located in Sussex County,  the southernmost of Delaware’s three counties and the only one with an Atlantic coastline.

Locals happily refer to the area as ‚ÄúSlower Lower Delaware‚ÄĚ, or SLD for short. (You will see destination stickers using the letters LSD – cute-   but SLD is the real deal).  The Delaware Beaches, as they are more officially known, are within a 2 hour drive of the fast-paced, pressure-filled areas surrounding Washington DC, Philadelphia, and Baltimore,  and less than 4 hours from NYC, but visitors here enjoy an entirely different tempo (at least in the offseason:  October – April). Just to the south is Ocean City, Maryland,  a bustling seaside city full of high rise resorts and an amusement-filled boardwalk.  To the north, across the Delaware Bay, via a car ferry,  is the southern tip of New Jersey and charming, Victorian Cape May.

IMG_7908
The Atlantic Ocean at Cape Henlopen

IMG_8393
Welcome to Slower Lower!

IMG_8353
Dogs are permitted at many local beaches,  check before you go

Squarely situated on the heavily populated Eastern Seaboard,  the Delaware Beaches seem magically distant, sparsely populated, and full of open space to enjoy.  The flat, open land lends itself to the kind of beautiful sunsets I remember from growing up in the Midwest, and I think they are a highlight of the area.  Here are just a few recent sunset snapshots:

IMG_7752
Pondfront Sunset

IMG_7002
Wintry sunset

IMG_7663
After the storm, a blazing sky

The area is very popular with hundreds of thousands of summer visitors who flock to the area mainly to enjoy its 25 mile Atlantic Coast,  along with beach towns, boardwalks, and the busy Rt. 1 strip with restaurants, outlet malls, mini golf, and a go-cart track.  However, just a bit further inland are bays and inlets for boaters and fishermen, golf courses galore, walking and biking trails, serene ponds, cornfields, farmsteads, and dairy farms boasting fresh ice cream.

IMG_7551
Say it with me… MOOOOOOOO!

IMG_6230
Fresh from the Cow ice cream, along aptly named Dairy Farm Road

IMG_4894
An entrance to the shady Breakwater Junction walking and biking trail

Area highlights include :

Rehoboth Beach is the vacation hub of the Delaware Beach area.  In Downtown Rehoboth, visitors will find cute shops, culinarily sophisticated restaurants, lively bars, and a classic activity-filled boardwalk with kiddie rides, games, and beachy snack delights such as french fries, saltwater taffy, and of course ice cream. Dogfish Head Brewery, headquartered in nearby Milton, recently completed construction of a large restaurant and entertainment venue right on Rehoboth Ave, the town’s primary street. And best of all, the lifeguarded beach off the boardwalk is free!

IMG_4873
Busy downtown Rehoboth Beach

Dewey Beach is located on a narrow strip of land between the ocean and Rehoboth Bay –  you’re never more than 1/4 mile from a waterfront in Dewey.  Dewey is known for attracting a younger crowd, and has a number of live music venues and clubs.

Heading south down Rt 1 from Dewey through a state park and over the scenic Indian River Inlet bridge brings the traveler to one of my favorite spots,  Bethany Beach.  Known as the  ‚Äúthe quiet beach‚ÄĚ, Bethany’s  nickname says it all. The town boasts an adorable, small downtown with plenty of  shopping and dining options, and a small boardwalk meant for strolling rather than partying.  Sea Colony is a large resort complex just south of downtown featuring several pools, a tennis complex, and private beach access.

0987cf9563615023026842732734e7bd_a6e07be0-f42c-9ec8-46e642cc077b748a
Photo courtesy of VisitDelaware.com

Lewes is the transit point for the ferry from Delaware to Cape May,  New Jersey, but offers so much more.   The “first town in the First State” was founded in the 1600s and served as a launching point for all things naval.  It’s a bit less of a tourist destination than the other towns, all of which include an Atlantic coastline;  Lewes’ beaches are on the Delaware Bay.  The regional high school and hospital are located in Lewes, and in addition to being the northernmost point of “the Beaches”, the town offers a quaint, boating-oriented downtown evocative of Newport, RI or Kennebunkport, ME.  In my opinion, it’s the hidden gem of the Delaware beach scene. (it’ also my new hometown, so I’m a little biased!)

IMG_4902
St. Peter’s church in Lewes

IMG_4898
Take what you need, Give what you can free food pantry in Lewes

IMG_5218
Lightship Overfalls, a museum ship and one of only 17 remaining lightships

IMG_4851
Lewes waterfront

IMG_3585
Charming 2nd street in downtown Lewes

Marking the entrance to the Delaware Bay, Cape Henlopen State Park is the environmental gem of the area. With 6 miles of bay and ocean shoreline, CHSP  is accessible from both Lewes (on the bay side of the Cape) and Rehoboth (on the ocean side).  Automobiles can enter the park for $10/day, but are unable to traverse through the park from Lewes to Rehoboth, presumably to prevent traffic from using the park as a bypass for busy Rt. 1. However, bicycles and pedestrians can access the entire park;  a fantastic 16 mile loop takes the rider or walker from Lewes to Rehoboth and back across Gordon’s Pond and down the Junction Breakwater Trail.  Bird and wildlife enthusiasts and those seeking solitude can enjoy the pine-edged trails, lighthouses, campgrounds, WWII watchtowers, surfing, fishing, and inland waterway access along with natural, unobstructed beach views.

IMG_4892
View along Gordon’s Pond trail in CHSP

IMG_3556
WWII Watchtowers line the Delaware beach shorefront

Although the Delaware beaches offer plenty of activities, daytrips are possible to Philadelphia, Washington DC, Annapolis, Victorian Cape May (via ferry), or Maryland’s eastern shore (Chincoteague Island is a very popular day trip – or camp overnight for a better chance to see the fabled wild horses).

While there are some hotels and B & B‚Äôs in the area, the vast majority of lodging for travelers is found in private homes or condominiums rented out by their owners through local realtors or on VRBO, HomeAway, or AirBNB.  This type of lodging contributes to the family-friendly nature of the Delaware beaches and keeps costs down, allowing groups or families to rent a multi-bedroom space with laundry and a kitchen for self-prepared meals.

This post would be remiss without mentioning the Delaware Beaches’  alternate moniker:  the “Culinary Coast”.   While Rt. 1 is full of standard restaurant chains, the towns are full of small, locally owned foodie-friendly restaurants.  Cuisines range from prevalent coastal (think crab cakes, lobster, fish tacos, and soft-shell crab), to farm-to-table, to Mexican, steakhouses, pizza, barbecue, French, and Asian.   There are also a number of locally established breweries, including well-known Dogfish Head, and even a couple of decent wineries.  We’ve done our best to keep them all busy by ordering takeout during COVID.  Here is an incomplete list of our favorites, with links and in no particular order:

  • Agave, Lewes – upscale Mexican – try the guacamole sampler!
  • La Fable,  Rehoboth –  French, cabaret-style
  • Salt Air, Rehoboth – Organic, farm-to-table
  • 1776 , Midway mall, Rehoboth, classic steakhouse
  • Bethany Blues,  Lewes and Bethany-  family-friendly barbecue where the bar specializes in bourbon
  • Striper Bites, Lewes – coastal specialty with a fun bar scene
  • The Purple Parrot Grill , downtown Rehoboth –  the food is good, but come here for the very lively bar/biergarten scene and particularly for karaoke on Friday and Saturdays
  • Irish Eyes, Lewes – Irish/American dining on the Lewes waterfront, live music many evenings
  • Rustic Acres Farm Market, Holland Glade Road, Rehoboth – barbecue, bakery, and fresh ice cream
  • Touch of Italy,  multiple locations including Lewes and Rehoboth,  reasonably authentic Italian – OMG THE CHICKEN PARM!!!
  • Chesapeake & Maine, downtown Rehoboth – seafood with live music almost every night, part of the Dogfish Head complex
  • Matt’s Fish Camp , Lewes and Bethany – coastal / seafood
  • Houston White,  downtown Rehoboth, steakhouse
  • Iron Hill Brewery,  just outside Rehoboth – great for a large party, this small chain out of Philadelphia has a large tented patio and their own proprietary brews
  • 2nd Street Tavern, Lewes – American (fried green tomatoes topped w/ crabmeat is my favorite), lively with live music or sports on TV and big open Victorian porch
  • Revelation Brewery & DaNizza pizza truck, Rehoboth –  like eating in your friend’s backyard (that cool friend who makes their own beer)
  • La Tonalteca, on Rt 1 outside of Rehoboth – inexpensive but great Mexican, with several local restaurants, colorful seating, and great margaritas

Please note –  just because a restaurant isn’t listed above,  doesn’t mean it isn’t great!  To survive the quiet offseason,  you need to be GOOD.  We just haven’t visited them all…..

IMG_4865
a toast at Revelation

IMG_7383
Rustic Acres farm market

If there’s a silver lining to all of the grief and stress caused by the COVID pandemic, it’s that my job has pivoted to primarily work-from-home.  As a result, our relocation to Delaware is now on the fast track, and I’ll be spending a lot more time here.  I guess I‚Äôll just have to learn to love biking trails, parks, beaches, quaint towns, a slower pace, beautiful sunsets, and great food. And I’ll have to learn to tolerate all the Orioles and Phillies fans, instead of the NY ones I‚Äôve gotten used to ūüôā

IMG_6604
Lewes Sunset

Nayara Springs – Rainforests, volcanos, and luxury: oh my!

Switching gears on our 10th Anniversary Costa Rica trip, Husband I left the sunny, dry ¬†Peninsula Papagayo in Guanacaste and made our way to the rainforest and the small ¬†town of La Fortuna, Costa Rica.¬† The drive took us a little over 3 hours, and was, shall we say, a bit adventurous;¬† we may have made a wrong turn, but followed our trusty Google Maps.¬† Somehow we ended up on a mostly unpaved road,¬† essentially offroading over a mountain.¬† We were lucky to have a 4 wheel drive vehicle –¬† at one point it felt like we were climbing at a 90 degree angle!

Screen Shot 2020-03-06 at 2.38.34 PM
See where the blue line exits Rt 142 and appears to cut across? ¬†That’s the rough portion of the road. Thanks Google for making things…. interesting!

This friendly fellow greeted us at our lunch stop as we approached the Lake Arenal area:

IMG_3984
And by the way … excellent fried chicken to be had here!

As we made our way around Lake Arenal, we enjoyed incredible views of the Arenal Volcano, from across the lake:

IMG_3989
Those are clouds, not an eruption

Arenal is classified as an active volcano, with its last major eruption in 1968, but most recent in 2010. The volcano is surrounded by a mountainous rainforest full of wildlife and beauty. And it was here that we found our incredible resort, Nayara Springs, which was The. Best. Resort. I’ve. EVER. Visited. Period.

As is proudly displayed on its website, Nayara Springs has won a number of luxury travel awards. Since this was an anniversary trip, and we had used points at our other Costa Rican destination, the Andaz, we chose to splurge on this spot and Oh! was it worth it.¬† (Husband says:¬† Banker Chick is really good at finding excuses to book luxury).¬† Rooms –¬† which aren’t typical hotel rooms, but villas – ¬†1,500 freakin’ sq. ft. villas – average about $900 / night. Because we booked more than six months in advance, we got a special rate of 4 nights for the price of 3.¬† Still far from cheap, but again … this place was worth every penny. And I will note, ¬†they don’t nickel and dime you – ¬†there is no resort fee, and the resort includes a free in room mini bar (non-alcoholic), ¬†free breakfast, free laundry, and free international phone calls.

A few photos of our amazing villa:

IMG_4019.jpeg
A romantic Anniversary greeting awaited us

IMG_4010
Seating area with fresh fruit and champagne

IMG_4024.jpeg
Netting around the bed was unnecessary, there were no bugs in the room

57463870596__C26D3356-E30F-464F-95BF-A3FAECB53A82.jpeg
sliding glass doors to private balcony with infinity pool

57463880285__E2926F59-B190-4D59-A2B9-A9210A6C0F51
Infinity pool, surrounded by lush vegetation

57463873800__13CDF8A8-EEFA-4678-BFED-30DFF9750D2B
The bathroom was easily 500 sq. ft.  In this photo, indoor shower and outdoor shower

IMG_4014
Another view of outside shower. ¬†I couldn’t get enough of this bathroom!

IMG_4017.jpeg
View across the bathroom. Did I tell you I couldn’t get enough?

IMG_4022.jpeg
Hammock on patio just waiting for me…

B692AC29-D622-4BFA-AEC9-242AA948AC7F
Ahhhh – pura vida!

Not only the villas, but the entire resort was maintained to perfection. Dense foliage surrounded well lit, hilly pathways:

IMG_4004

Since the resort is on the side of a mountain,  some of the terrain could be steep.  Fortunately, the resort offered golf cart transportation if needed.  We were glad to take the cart one night,  because our driver spotted this colorful little guy:

IMG_4036
Only in Costa Rica:  the red-eyed tree frog

IMG_4156
The path outside our villa in the evening

There are several restaurants on the property, ¬†which also offers evening entertainment. ¬†Because of the dark, mountainous terrain, ¬†it’s probably advisable to stay on property in the evening unless you are very comfortable with that kind of driving. ¬†We enjoyed meals at Mis Amores, a Latin bistro where breakfast is served, Asia Luna, a fusion restaurant, Nostalgia wine & tapas bar, and our favorite: Amor Loco, a sumptuous fine food restaurant with purple velvet seating – ¬†quite a contrast to the surrounding rainforest!

IMG_4043
That is a serious fruit plate – breakfast at Mis Amores

 

IMG_4177
Our waiter at Amor Loco preparing some kind of flaming drink

IMG_4142
Evening entertainment at Nayara Springs

IMG_4158.jpeg
Returning to our villa,  well lit steps show just how secluded we were

Finally, ¬† ¬†I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the ¬†spa at Nayara Springs. ¬†Yes, I know, ¬†we went to the spa at Andaz … but Nayara was offering some kind of discount on their massages so we ended up going not once, but twice, ¬†squeezing in a second treatment on our last day. ¬†The spa at Nayara is open air, ¬†so rather than piped in nature sounds, what you hear is an actual rainforest! ¬†Try the chocolate scrub – ¬†wonderful.

IMG_4191.jpeg
spa entrance at Nayara Springs

The resort was so beautiful, we spent most of our four days there enjoying its delights. ¬†However, we did manage to get off the property during the day a few times. ¬†I pre-booked a pass at Eco Termales Hot Springs. ¬†I don’t have any photos of this experience, because once arriving all electronics were stored safely in a locker. ¬†But we did enjoy the multiple thermal, sulfuric pools. ¬†The resort was clean, ¬†not at all crowded, and peaceful.

We also arranged a day tour through the resort: ¬†a private horseback riding and hanging bridges trek at ¬†Mistico Park in La Fortuna. Note that this tour is not featured on Nayara Springs’ website – ¬†be sure to ask the concierge about your choices. We were able to book just a a couple of days in advance. We paid $73 per person including transportation to and from the park.

If you want to be truly immersed in the treetops of the rainforest, and aren’t too afraid of heights, a hanging bridge trek is a great way to learn more about the flora and fauna of the area. There is a fair bit of hiking on uneven paths on this tour, and some up and downhill walking, ¬†so be prepared to be active (and to sweat) and wear good trekking shoes.

IMG_4088.jpeg
View into the rainforest canopy

IMG_4099
Hanging on a bridge

Our horses, Tequila and Indio, were amazingly well trained and stable on steep and narrow pathways.  Once again we enjoyed the services of a fantastic local guide, Francisco.  Francisco hailed from Nicaragua, and has 17 Рseventeen!  brothers and sisters.  With so many siblings, he needed to support himself at a young age and migrated to Costa Rica, finding a home near Arenal where he became an excellent horseman.   We felt extremely safe with him and these horses.

IMG_4067
du du du du du DU du – TEQUILA!

 

IMG_4065.jpeg
hey there, Indio!

During our tour we saw wild pigs,  a sloth, and a toucan in the wild. Francisco also pointed out an amazing Sleeping Plant (the dormilona),  also known as a Touch Me Not, that folds in upon itself when touched, to protect itself against predators and harsh weather.

Low clouds made the first part of our journey very foggy,  obscuring the views Рthe photo below actually looks over a hill, toward Lake Arenal and the volcano (just trust me):

IMG_4084
Francisco in the Fog

But, within less than 30 minutes,  the clouds partially cleared.  Francisco was kind enough to take us back to the scenic hilltop for more photos:

IMG_4105.jpeg
Arenal volcano, partially obscured by clouds, in the background

IMG_4117.jpeg

We hated to leave Nayara and the rainforest.  I admit, although I knew the resort was going to be very nice based on the reviews and awards, I was surprised Р I thought it would be too buggy and humid for me to really enjoy.  But the amenities, people, and natural beauty far outweighed any negatives. We will be back!

We flew home from San Jose airport, about a 2 1/2 hour drive from the Arenal area but a bit less adventurous,  mostly via highway.  We have incredible memories of Costa Rica. Pura Vida!

IMG_4215.jpeg
Pura Vida says it all in Costa Rica

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Eco-friendly Costa Rica: Tico Tours Private Palo Verde Tour Review

First, a little thought on day tours. While I enjoy being an independent traveler and exploring at my own pace,¬† there is something to be said for a guided day tour, particularly when visiting a place to which you’ve never traveled.¬† There are two basic types of day tours –¬† group tours,¬† which take place on a bus or minibus and can include anywhere from 8 – 50 people,¬† and private tours which are, you guessed it, private and catered only to your group.¬† The latter can be a more expensive option, although if your group is more than 4 people,¬† not necessarily on a per person basis.¬† Group tours certainly have their place:¬† less pricy,¬† typically including all of the well researched highlights of a region, meeting fellow travelers, well trained guides with a microphone or headset. Reviews abound.¬† ¬†They are simply … predictable.¬† Private tours, on the other hand,¬† offer the traveler the ability to design a “bespoke” day (I hate that word, btw,¬† followed closely by “curated”) –¬† seeing and doing exactly what you want to do.¬† Stop to take a picture of that cute cow. Stop for water or the toilet.¬† Grab lunch when you’re hungry, or skip it entirely.¬† But of course, that flexibility comes at a cost –¬† not only a financial one, but the risk of a little less predictability. The quality and knowledge of the guide makes a huge difference here.

With that said,¬† Husband and I were very pleased we chose to take a private tour, arranged by¬†Tico Tours Guanacaste (which offers both types of tours),¬† called¬†the Palo Verde tour.¬† If you click on the “rates” section of the tour page,¬† you will see the choice between group or private touring. This tour included a visit to its namesake National Park,¬† Palo Verde,¬† full of local wildlife,¬† a boat ride down the Tempisque river, cultural stops and information, and lunch at a hacienda once owned by a former President of Costa Rica.

And so,¬† we’re off!

Our guide, Mario, actually majored in becoming a tour guide.¬† His knowledge was evident as he told us a little about Costa Rica’s history:¬† first, a reminder that the Americas weren’t discovered by Christopher Columbus, but by the Chinese, as evident on maps made well before 1492.¬† Then, the interesting note that unlike much of Central and South America,¬† Costa Rica was not initially populated by the Spanish.¬† Why?¬† Because there wasn’t any gold.

While Costa Rica’s abundant farmland produces cantaloupe, pineapple, palm oil, bananas, coffee, watermelon, and citrus fruits, an important crop is sugar cane.¬† Did you know that sugar cane can be used to make a wide variety of products, including molasses, fuel, and paper?¬† We didn’t! We stopped to watch migrants from Nicaragua harvest the sugar cane by hand, using machetes.¬† Apologies for the distance of the photo, but I didn’t want to get that close…

IMG_3812
Workers harvesting sugar cane in Guanacaste, Costa Rica

The Nicaraguan workers toiling under the hot sun are paid by the square meter harvested,¬† and as a result they move surprisingly fast given the heat. Mario explained that the majority of the workers are migrants, because the native Costa Ricans are financially well off and don’t need to do this type of hard labor.¬† He credits the excellent public education,¬† government provided healthcare, and the tourism industry for giving Costa Rica such a strong economy for the area.¬† The 9.16% income tax covers not only healthcare, but retirement pensions,¬† for residents of Costa Rica.¬† No wonder that many foreigners, especially Americans, are making Costa Rica home.

Our next stop was a visit along the Tempisque river, where oxen assist in dredging the riverbed for dirt and sand that will be used in making concrete:

IMG_3818
A fascinating, old world process…

Concrete is an essential product in Costa Rica, where most homes are built of concrete –¬† wood is too quickly rotted by termites here. Mario explained that using oxen to mine the cement base is more environmentally friendly,¬† maintains tradition, and keeps the profit in the pocket of local families rather than large corporations.

On our way to the hacienda lunch, Mario had a quiz for us.  He picked what appeared to be a fruit off a tree, and asked us what we thought it was:

IMG_3821
What is it?

A pepper? No.

A tomato of some sort?  No.

A sweet fruit like a mango or papaya? No.

We didn’t guess correctly until we were offered a number of clues:¬† It starts with a C. It’s sold at almost any grocery. It contains protein. It often comes in a can.¬† Finally….. it’s a nut.¬† What?¬† That “fruit” above is the casing for one, single cashew nut!¬† ¬†And by the way,¬† the rind has a nasty taste.¬† Amazing –¬† Every day I realize how much I don’t know,¬† and even more so when I travel.

Our next stop was a hacienda where we were led, along with other Tico Tours guests, on a cultural experience led by Ramon and Juanita,  a couple dressed in traditional clothing who run this small tourist attraction.  First, we watched the traditional process of extracting sugar cane, using oxen:

IMG_3824
yoked oxen walk in a circle, grinding pulp into sugar cane using a long pole

Ramon and Juanita also treated us to “puntalita”,¬† little corn-based snacks,¬† and taught me how to make a tortilla in preparation for a delicious, authentic lunch.

IMG_3839
Time to make the tortillas!

IMG_3842
I was a little intimidated by the hot, hot pan used to cook the tortillas

After lunch, we continued our journey,¬† deeper in to Palo Verde National Park,¬† where we embarked on our jungle river cruise.¬† Thanks to Mario’s eagle eyes,¬† on the way we were treated to a very special sight in the adjacent wetlands: the Jabiru.¬† Less than 100 of these stork-like birds remain in the wild in Costa Rica. Wow!

IMG_3850
A jabiru in Guanacaste, Costa Rica

Mario made note that Costa Rica has a very environmentally conscious wetlands law:  wetlands are not taxed,  and if kept wild,  owners actually receive a stipend from the government.

We embarked on a small boat for our eco-tour of the river, where our captain helped us spot various wildlife:

IMG_3854
Blue Heron

IMG_3856
Basilisk,¬† aka “Jesus Christ Lizard”, because they can walk on water

IMG_3872
Hello monkey!

IMG_3881
Crocodile on the move

On this highly informative tour,  we learned is that despite growing wealth through tourism and real estate development, Costa Ricans desire to preserve the many natural wonders that surround them. Moreover, Costa Ricans have a sense that their country is special.  And we agree!