Category Archives: tour

Five Years of Adventure

This week marks the fifth anniversary of the launching of our travel blog. Our first post happened before we even left for our honeymoon and was just a link to a news article about one of the first stops on our trip. At that point, we hadn’t even figured out the general format or tone for the site, nor really what we were doing.

In the following days, we started to figure out what we wanted to write about, how we were going to write it, and what kinds and numbers of pictures we would post to go along with the text. On the honeymoon (the original Super Awesome Mega Trip) we always seemed to be a day or two behind in posting, and we were often limited to how much we could include based on our limited and expensive internet access. Hence the frequent typos, grammar mistakes, and smaller pictures. Once we got on the cruise ship and had some days-at-sea, or rest days, would we catch up. Today we try not to fall behind in posting daily blogs, because we know we’ll never catch up otherwise. These trips are supposed to be a vacation after all!

We eventually settled into a rhythm where Ryan would write the first draft of the day’s post, Rachel would add accompanying pictures and correct Ryan’s awful hastily typed mistakes. Then we’d together proof it one last time before posting it for everyone to read. On the honeymoon, the entire process could take anywhere from 30-120 minutes per post, usually closer to the latter. Today we need around 30-75 minutes per post, and its usually around 45 minutes.

We’ve accomplished a lot in these last five years. We’ve been to every continent, touched every ocean. Seen a volcanic eruption, fled from tsunamis, swam with sea lions and penguins, dove with great whites, played with dolphins, went on safaris, hiked rain forests, deserts, lava fields, and glaciers, saw dozens of waterfalls, and marveled at aurora and total eclipses.

We’ve blogged about thirteen different trips in the last five years.

In the past we’ve put together a top five list for each of our major trips. So in celebration of our fifth anniversary post, here’s our Top TEN favorite destinations and sights from the last five years.

#10 Hobbiton (Matamata, New Zealand)

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This is the only non-nature related item on our list. If we could only visit one movie set from the Lord of the Rings trilogy, it would have been Hobbiton. As luck would have it, this was the only set people could visit during our time in New Zealand. This was just a fun and cool place to visit.

#9 Antarctica (Paradise Bay, Antarctic Peninsula)

Of course Antarctica would make the top ten list. We didn’t get to spend much time here, nor even get off the ship, but the scenic cruising was breathtaking. Everywhere we looked we saw beautiful virgin land, untouched by anything without wings for a very long time, completely unspoiled by civilization. Penguins, sea lions, and whales were all over the place. We got to see icebergs and blue ice from the continental ice shelf. Our time here was cut short when a blizzard rolled in, but led to a snowball fight on the sundeck that we’ll never forget. We hope to return in the future!

#8 Iceland and the Northern Lights (Iceland)

What’s not to love about Iceland (except for the climate). We couldn’t really identify any one particular thing about the long weekend getaway that was awesome by itself, but when we combine the aurora, glacial hikes, geysers, columnar jointing, waterfalls, and snorkeling between continental plates in near frozen water, it becomes one super memorable trip. Every so often we look at the prices for a quick weekend getaway for a second trip.

#7 Kilauea and Volcanoes National Park (Big Island, Hawai’i)

A safe trip to see the world’s most active volcano? Yes please! We hiked on lava fields and inside lava tubes and saw red lava sloshing around and bubbling in one of the cones from a helicopter. It was even where we sought shelter when a tsunami hit the big island.

#6 Devil’s Pool (Livingstone, Zambia)

Our only full day visiting Victoria Falls was pretty cool. Views from the very wet Zimbabwe side, and the drier Zambia side, seeing a rain forest micro-climate, and river cruise in the evening along the Mighty Zambezi River for our defacto last game drive. But the highlight of the day was swimming in the Devil’s Pool. This natural pot sits on the edge of Victoria Falls. The rush from looking over the edge of one of the earth’s greatest waterfalls in an experience we’ll never forget.

#5 Kenai Fjords (Seward, Alaska)

This was almost an entire Alaskan cruise combined into a single day. What made this tour so memorable was probably a stroke of luck. Perfect weather combined with the arrival of numerous orca pods for mating season made for perfect scenario of seeing an overabundance of wildlife combined with Alaska’s natural beauty. We saw hundreds of orcas, lots of puffins, dozens of sea lions, a breaching humpback and a few glaciers up close. Easily the highlight of the Alaska trip.

#4 South African Safari (Hoedspruit, South Africa)

We spent about three days in the Thornybush Private Game Preserve outside of Kruger National Park. We had two game drives a day where we got to see the big five (Elephants, lions, leopards, water buffalo, black and white rhino) amongst many other great animals like hippo, warthogs, giraffes, and zebra. There was no one game drive that really stood out since they were pretty all great.

#3 Galapagos (Galapagos, Ecuador)

Much like the African safari in #4 above, there was no particular location that stood out during our recent Galapagos trip. Since there weren’t any natural land based predators in the archipelago, the animals were completely comfortable around us and each other. The entire vacation was fantastic and a truly amazing experience. We snorkeled with sea lions and penguins. Got up close with tortoises, blue-footed boobies, frigate birds, marine iguanas, and herons. We hiked a lava field that rivaled Hawai’i. One thing we never mentioned in our earlier blog posts was just how great the Xpedition crew performed. We were used to great service on Celebrity ships, but these guys were a step above.

#2 Volunteer Beach Penguin Colony (Volunteer Point, Falkland Islands)

This was the highlight of the Antarctic trip. We walked around with thousands of penguins that day! King, Gentoo, and Magellanic penguins were everywhere. The sand on the beach was so white that it looked like fresh snow. The temperature was cool but not cold, so it was quite comfortable to hang out and observe the penguins in something that looked like their natural habitat. We only had 90 minutes here, and it was the most expensive excursion we’ve ever gone on, but it was totally worth it. We don’t know if we’ll ever be able to make it back to the Falklands, but if we do we know where were going to spend our first day.

#1 Total Eclipses

Of course total eclipses were going to be #1. We’re eclipse chasers! We plan our trips around spending time in the moon’s shadow. Our first eclipse was on the honeymoon somewhere between Fiji and New Zealand. The second total eclipse was in Rigby, Idaho.

Other great visits that didn’t make the top ten include: Mauna Kea, Koala BearsCape Horn, Istanbul, Chichen Itza Mayan Ruins, Vancouver, Costa Rica Rain Forest, Yellowstone National Park

Distances:

  • By water: ~22709 nautical miles
  • By air: 95674 miles
  • By car: ~9000 miles
  • By train: 345 miles
  • steps: 955,948 plus whatever we walked on the honeymoon, south america and Antarctica, Galapagos, and Vegas trips.
  • Total distance traveled: >131,152 mi

For reference the circumference of the Earth is 24,901 mi

Travel

  • Total watercraft traveled upon: 1 ship and 9 boats
  • Cruise ships: 6 (Celebrity Millennium, Celebrity Infinity, Celebrity Equinox, Oasis of the Seas, Freedom of the Seas, Radiance of the Seas, Celebrity Xpedition)
  • Total aircraft: 51 jets and 1 helicopter
  • Total airports: 43 (IAD, IAH, LAX, ITO, KOA, HNL, SYD, MEL, AYQ, CNS, GUM, NRT, EWR, DEN, LAS, PHX, GRU, GIG, EZE, FCO, SAN, REY, KEF, BWI, FLL, DKR, JNB, CPT, HDS, LVI, DCA, PBI, SEA, ANC, SCC, BRW, YVR, DFW, CLT, SLC, SAL, GYE, GPS)
  • Total hotels: 33
  • Total rental cars: 5

Geography

  • Total US States: 18 (Maryland, Virginia, Texas, California, Hawai’i, New Jersey, Colorado, Nevada, Arizona, Utah, California, Florida, Washington, Alaska, North Caroling, Idaho, Montana, Wyoming)
  • Total US Territories: 4 (American Samoa, Guam, Washington DC, US Virgin Islands)
  • Total Countries: 33 (US, Fiji, New Zealand, Australia, Japan, Brazil, Argentina, Falklands, Chile, Uruguay, Italy, Vatican City, Croatia, Greece, Turkey, Malta, Iceland, Bahamas, Sint Marteen, Senegal, South Africa, Zambia, Zimbabwe, Haiti, Jamaica, Cayman Islands, Mexico, Canada, Columbia, Panama, Costa Rica, San Salvador, Ecuador )
  • Total Continents: 7 (North America, Australia, Asia, South America, Antarctica, Europe, Africa)
  • Total Oceans: 5 (North and South Pacific, Indian, North and South Atlantic, Southern, Arctic)
  • Total Hemispheres: All 4
  • Total Equator Crossings: 10
  • Total Time Zones: 25 (EDT, CDT, PDT, HST, GDT, NZDT, EADT, CAST, EAT, JST, EST, BRT/UYST, ART/AQ-Rothera, FKST/CLST, CST, CEDT, TRDT, PST, GMT, AST, SAST, AKDT, COT, ECT, GALT)
  • Highest Elevation: 13,796 ft (Muana Kea)
  • Lowest Elevation: -20 ft (Great Barrier Reef)
  • Farthest Point South: Paradise Bay, Antarctica (64°51’18.8″S )
  • Farthest point East: Thornybush Game Preserve (31°11′ 50″ E)
  • Farthest Point West: near Yulura, Northern Territory, Australia (~130°57′ E)
  • Farthest Point North:  below Point Barrow, Alaska (71°21′26″ N)

Wildlife

  • Total Penguin Species Observed in the Wild: 7 (Little Blue, King, Gentoo, Magellanic, Chinstrap, African, Galapagos)
  • Total Penguin Species Observed in Captivity: 6 (Emperor, Adelie, Humboldt, Southern Rockhopper, Macaroni, Northern Rockhopper)
  • Total Penguin Species we have yet to see: 5 (Fiorland, Snares, Erect-crested, royal, yellow eyed) All of these species can be found on or in the vicinity of the South Island of New Zealand.
  • Total Cetaceans: 7 (Humpback. beluga, Dall’s porpoise, orca, harbor porpoise, southern right whale, bottlenose dolphin)
  • Total Pinnipeds: 10 (South American Sea Lion, Antarctic Fur Seal, South American Fur Seal, Galapagos Sea Lion, Galapagos Fur Seal, stellar sea lion, river otter, sea otter, harbor seal, cape seal)
  • Total Primates: 5 (humans, marmosets, baboon, vervet monkey, lesser bushbaby)
  • Total Sula: 5 (australian gannet, cape gannet, blue-footed booby, nazca booby, red-footed booby)
  • Total sharks: 3 (great white, black tipped reef shark, white tipped reef shark)
  • Other notable land animals: Elephants, lions, leopards, water buffalo, black and white rhino, hippo, warthogs, giraffes, zebra, moose, brown bear, black bear

Meteorology and Astronomy

  • Total Eclipses Viewed: 2
  • Total minutes spent in the moon’s shadow: 5 minutes 48 seconds
  • Total Partial Eclipses: 1
  • Highest Temperature we experienced: 99°F (Rio de Janeiro, Brazil)
  • Lowest Temperature we experienced: 24°F (Southern Ocean near Antarctica)
  • Roughest Surf: 14 ft (Southern Ocean near Elephant Island, Antarctica)
  • Strongest Wind Gust: 65 kts (Elephant Island, Antarctica)
  • Highest Kp when we were actually able to see the aurora: 2.7
  • Aurora colors observed: 5 (green, red, purple, blue, pink)

Photography

  • Total Pictures Taken: ~42,500

Miscellaneous

  • Total Honeymoon Word Drops: 50
  • Total Ugly Americans Encountered: 8
  • Total Volcanic Eruptions Observed: 2
  • Total Royal Flushes at a Table Game: 2
  • Odds of Getting a Royal Flush in 7 Card Poker: 1 in 30,941
  • Total Snowball fights: 1
  • Vaccinations and medications required: 4
  • Total national park passport cancellations stamps: 51
  • Total Days: 188 (includes partial travel days)
  • Longest day: 39 hrs (Dec 3, 2012 with a convenient dateline crossing)
  • Shortest day: 0 hrs (Nov 11, 2012 skipped by crossing the international dateline skip)

Blog Stats

  • posts: 181 (including this one)
  • views: 12,216
  • countries: 97
  • regular followers: 133
  • Most visits in a year: 2015

Join us again in the spring as we go on another Caribbean cruise.

It’s been an amazing five years! Who knows what the next five will bring.

Post script: After reviewing our Galapagos photos, we discovered that we did see the Phillie Phanatic after all!

 

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Yellowstone National Park North Loop

Location: Yellowstone National Park

We’re still on east coast time so we woke up before sunrise this morning. Rather than trying to squeeze in a few more minutes of sleep, we elected to get the day started earlier than planned. We spent the day exploring the nothern end of Yellowstone National Park, and we needed every bit of the extra time.

Many people were thinking that the park was going to be extra busy today due to all of the eclipse tourists, with predictions of 3x-4x above normal. With a couple exceptions we didn’t have to wait long to find parking at the various sites, nor did we ever feel crowded when hiking around.

Our day began with a stop at Gibbon Falls, Beryl Spring, and Monument Geyser Basin. But our first real experience hiking and seeing the geothermal sites was at the Artists Paintpots. There we saw steam vents and bubbling mud pits.

Beryl Spring
Overlook of the Artist Paintpots
Bubbling mud pit

But we spent most the morning at the Norris Geyser Basin. We couldn’t spend all day here so we had to choose between a hike of the Porcelain Basin to see its many hot springs, lakes and pools. Or take a longer ~2 mi hike of the back basin to see its many geysers. We decided on the back basin. Some of the geyser we saw included Steamboat, Puff ‘n stuff, Minute, and Echunis.

Steamboat Geyser
Cistern Geyser
Green Dragon Spring
Echinus Geyser
Overflow from Steamboat
Minute Geyser

Our next stop took us to Roaring Mountain

Roaring Mountain

and the Mammoth Hot Springs.

From there we proceeded east into the park making our way past Tower Junction and into the Lamar Valley. Prior to entering the valley Ryan lamented about the lack of bison (and other wildlife) we have seen today. But that quickly changed as soon as we started driving through along the road through the valley. We saw dozens of bison, many of which we grazing very close to the road.

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A buck, not happy that humans are so close.

and even an osprey.

Two Osprey

For Rachel, the highlight of the day came when we got to see the Yellowstone Canyon and Waterfall. Parking and signage here was tight near the entrance so we took the first spot we could find and walked along the northern rim trail to various vantage points along the canyon. We’ll let the pictures speak for themselves.

Yellowstone Canyon – A basalt layer can be seen at the top as well as various ash layers (blueish-gray color).

Yellowstone Falls

We still had daylight to spare, so we went back west across the park and a bit south to visit more geysers at the lower and midway geysers basins. The most spectacular of which included the Excelsior Geyser Crater and Grand Prismatic Hot Spring.

Sputtering Geyser
Crater of Excelsior Geyser
A preview of a better picture of Grand Prismatic Hot Spring. Come back on Tuesday for a better view.

Finally, with little daylight to spare we exited the park, saw a few more mule deer by the river, and had dinner in West Yellowstone.

Young mule deer

Tomorrow we are going to watch the total eclipse in Rigby, Idaho. Yay totality!

Total steps: 24,132

Total geological formations visited: a lot!

Total times Ryan checked the weather for tomorrow: 4+ occasions of checking various weather predictions (we had no connectivity in the park).

Total national park passport stamps: 7

Total miles driven: 211

Bonus: Our first wildlife encounter of the day

San Gervasio Mayan Ruins

Location: Cozumel, Mexico

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Today we are back in Cozumel, Mexico. We were here last year and took a tour of the Chitzen Itza ruins in Yucatan. Today we set out to explore the San Gervasio ruins here on Isla Cozumel.

These ruins were dedicated to the Mayan goddess of the moon and fertility. Leigh and Becky, who did not join us on the tour, were very happy to hear about the latter. 😉

It was hard to appreciate the meaning behind many of the ruins. Luckily our guide Cesar was able to give everyone the necessary background on Mayan mythology and numerology to understand the architecture and symbolism of the sites.

The ruins were more modest than what we toured last year. We saw the temple dedicated to moon goddess…

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and another to both the sun and moon.

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We also saw the gates and road to the city.

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After the visiting the ruins our tour took us to a beach on the Caribbean side of the island. We spent about 90 min here relaxing in the cove and occasionally lying in the hammocks.

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The evening show was the Broadway Intimate Cabaret. The ship’s singers sang a variety of Broadway hits.

Tonight, we also joined Becky and Leigh for dinner in Murano, the ship’s French specialty restaurant. The food was delicious.

We overnight in Cozumel tonight. And tomorrow we go on tour of an underground river cenote on the mainland.

Total steps: 9670

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Costa Rica Rainforest

Location: Limon, Costa Rica

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Today we made port in Puerto Limon, Costa Rica. This was another port that we were really looking forward to visiting, because today we were going to explore a real tropical rain forest. No, Tijuca didn’t really count. This was a full day tour, we were one of the first people to leave the ship and one of the last to get back on board.

Our excursion started off with a river cruise through the Tortuguero Canals. We were told beforehand that this would be our best opportunity to see wildlife that day, due in part to it being early in the day, near water, and relatively out in the open. We spent about an hour cruising through the canals. During this time we were able to see…

…howler monkeys…

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…a two toed sloth…

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…an active three toed sloth…

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…cayman…

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…crocodiles…

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…various birds…

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Kingfisher
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Green-backed Heron
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Cormorant

… and more!

Green Basilisk
Green Basilisk
Bats (very small bats)
Bats (very small bats)

Following the river cruise we drove about 2 hours inland toward the mountains. It was here that we spent time at a private reserve near a national park. We started our tour there on a nature hike where we saw carpenter ants, bullet ants and:

toucans

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and an anteater.

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We had an authentic Costa Rican lunch with lots of yummy foods. It poured during lunch time. But luckily it cleared up in time for our tree top gondola ride.

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A naturalist guide joined us in the gondola as we cruised through the rain forest both near the forest floor and a hundred feet up at the tree tops.

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We returned to the ship just before last call. In the evening we saw Mark Preston of The Lettermen.

Tomorrow is our third day at sea. We plan to accomplish nothing.

Number of primates: 2, howler monkey and human

Number of pilose: 3 (anteater, two toed and three toed sloths)

Free purell squirts: 9

Total steps: 8,299

 

The Atlantic Locks of the Panama Canal

Location: Colon, Panama

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Last night we posted the blog and tried to go to bed early for our early morning excursion to transit the Panama Canal. But things didn’t quite go as expected. Soon after uploading last night’s post we got notification that the ferry that is used for the excursion to transit the canal was down for repairs, and that our excursion was cancelled. Because it was so last minute, we were only given three options as a replacement:

  1. Going to a shopping mall in Panama City
  2. Visiting Portobelo, Panama which according to the tour description “is severely affected by poverty, the facilities are substandard”
  3. Visiting the Gatun and Agua Clara Locks of the Panama Canal

Regardless of disappointment we booked the locks tour late last night. Our tour would limit us to one ocean, one continent, and no water transportation.

This morning Ryan was in a mood. But we still got breakfast and boarded a tour bus that first drove to Gatun locks area. Along the way we learned that there are no traffic laws in the Colon Province (this is actually true), and that most of the countries economy comes from the Colon province, but all of that money gets reinvested into the Pacific coast side of the country. And it really showed while driving through Colon.

We started our tour of the locks at the new (one year old) Agua Clara locks visitor center. These are the newest locks of the canal and are about 60% bigger, but use 60% less fresh water than the previous locks.

Agua Clara Locks
Agua Clara Locks

But because they are so much bigger they are also slower. We were at the visitor center for about 1.5 hours and only managed to see one larger super-carrier make it though 1 of the 3 locks.

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After that we went to the older Gatun locks.  We were there for about 45 minutes and saw a couple ships pass through the locks.

Driving over the Agua Clara Locks. That is the same container ship from the previous pictures.
Driving over the Agua Clara Locks. That is the same container ship from the previous pictures.

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Ryan, Rachel, Becky, and Leigh
Ryan, Rachel, Becky, and Leigh

We also got to see the use of the mule trains which help move the ships through the locks.

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And play engineer on a model mule near the entrance.

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Overall it was a pretty neat tour. It’s still upsetting that we couldn’t transit the canal on this trip as planned. But we suppose it prevents us from doing it twice if/when we come back again to do a proper cruise ship canal transit.

We made it back to the ship in time for lunch. One “advantage” to having out tour cancelled and rebooking a different one was that we could take advantage of the “in-port” prices for a massage. A relaxing massage ensued later that afternoon.

In the evening we saw the production show Elysium. It was entertaining as always.

Today also marked the southern most part of the trip at (9.3 N).

Tomorrow we make port in Puerto Limon, Costa Rica, where we’ll go on a tour of the rain forest.

Total Oceans: 1 (North Atlantic)

Total Continents: 2 (South America – on foot, and North America by sight)

Free purell squirts: 6

Total steps: 8,779

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Cartagena

Location: Cartagena, Colombia

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Typically we come into a port of call with some background and expectations of where we are visiting. But today was one of those rare exceptions. For whatever reason, we didn’t do a lot of research on Cartagena beyond looking at the offered excursions and the travel advisories on the State Department website. The excursion options were pretty limited, and everything offered was a variation on an old city tour and/or old fortress tour.

We choose the old city tour. We got up a reasonable hour and joined Becky and Leigh for breakfast. Soon thereafter we got off the ship and boarded a catamaran which took us across the harbor to the old city. On the way, we passed by the Colombian naval base, which was proud to welcome its fifth ship to the fleet yesterday. Our guide made light of this and said that their navy has 400 ships… minus 396. He said that Colombia is not a war country and doesn’t have need for a large military. But he did take pride in saying that Colombia is the only South American country with access to two oceans. But we’d think Chile might have something to say about that here.

The Columbian Navy
The Colombian Navy

It may be useful to point out that it was about 90F and sunny today, even though the forecast called for clouds and passing thundershowers. It was hot and muggy and a bit difficult to really enjoy.

Our tour guide Carlos (aka Speaker) was full of extra energy and tried his best to wake up the large group and get us excited for the day. He was pretty knowledgeable about the city and its history and provided plenty of background via a microphone and chest speaker. But it was difficult to always hear him or pay attention with the constant pestering of the street vendors selling hats, sunglasses, and necklaces. The city itself is almost 500 years old. The old walls were built as defenses against pirates.

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Beyond seeing the architectural beauty of the old city, we also made stops at the Pre-Colombian culture and gold museum, and the emerald museum. The latter two were a great stop if only for the air conditioning and break from the vendors.

After about two hours, and a deceptively long mile of walking, our city tour came to an end. We boarded the catamaran and went back to the Equinox. But before returning to the ship, the port had a small zoo with various local birds and monkeys.

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We spent the rest of the day on the ship relaxing from the heat and activity of the morning’s tours.

In the evening we saw the comedian Carl Banks.

Tomorrow we make port in Colon, Panama. But we won’t spend much time there because were going to board another boat and transit the Panama Canal! Tomorrow will be a two continent and two ocean day.

Total steps: 10,678

Total primates: 2 species

Free purell squirts: 7

The Orca Super Pod at Kenai Fjord

Location: Seward, Alaska

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Today we drove from Anchorage down to Seward. It was a relatively quick and scenic drive compared with our drives of the previous two days, aided by the sunny skies. We saw a lot of bald eagles during our drive, but we didn’t stop to get any picture because we had a tight schedule to keep to go on a cruise tour of the Kenai Fjords.

We should mention that the weather was perfect today. Upper sixties, mostly sunny, very calm seas, and little wind. What a contrast from yesterday!

We boarded the Callisto Voyager around 11 and made our way out of the Resurrection Bay. As we waited for the ship to leave, we got to watch a sea otter playing around by the docks. He even escorted the ship through part of the harbor.

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Our first stop on the cruise was to look at a puffins on Hive and Rugged Islands. This was our first time seeing puffins in the wild. We were in Iceland during the wrong season to see them last year.

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Next we ventured out into the Gulf of Alaska to attempt some whale watching. It’s usually hit or miss with whale watching in this part of Alaska during this time of year. But apparently we timed it perfectly. Not only did we spot a pod of orcas coming in, we spotted several pods of orcas arriving from a far. This was the first day of orca mating season, and both local and transient pods were joining together in the Kenai Fjords to engage in reproductive activities. Some of which we actually witnessed. By the end of the day, the dozens upon dozens of orcas began swimming together as a super pod. This kind of congregation is seen only 2-3 days a year!

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We took a break from watching the orcas, and made way towards Chat Island where a colony of sea lions spend the day sunning themselves.

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The ship then proceeded to the Holgate Glacier. We spent over 20 minutes here observing the glacier. The crew even took a few small icebergs out the arm (water) so that we could feel the glacial ice and pose with pictures of it.

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Holding glacial ice

We didn’t actually get that close to the glacier, so our sense of scale was off. We would see the glacier calve, then hear the loud crack 2.5 seconds later. It wasn’t until we left the glacier and saw another similar sized ship approach later that we could get a great sense for how huge it truly is!

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Notice the ship near the base of the glacier.

Along with the glacier, there were numerous other scenic vistas and wild animals.

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Mountain goats
Mountain goats

Including our first good bald eagle picture

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On our way back to Seward we encountered a lone humpback whale tail slapping the water in the distance. We’re not sure if he was trying to attract the attention of other whales, or the tour boats. It certainly got our attention!

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When we got close, he stopped slapping his tail, and started doing pectoral slaps.

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By this point another two tour boats arrived. He kept up with the pectoral slaps for a while and then switched over to breeching! Amazing!

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After leaving the humpback whale, we encountered another large pod of orcas. This time, there was also a group of sea lions nearby. They were not happy to see the orcas (since orcas sometimes eat them), and were very vocal about it.

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Angry sea lions 'barking' at the orcas.

Angry sea lions ‘barking’ at the orcas.

We were told that on most days, the tour would be lucky to see any whales. Today we had the problem of seeing so many, so close, on opposite sides of the ship, that we had trouble keeping up with the photo taking opportunities.

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It was a fantastic tour!

On the drive back to Anchorage, we stopped to see the portage glacier.

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Tomorrow we visit the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center on our way back down to Seward. We’ll also visit the Alaska Sealife Center in town. Lastly, we kickoff the second half of our Alaska trip by boarding the Radiance of the Seas for a one week cruise.

Today’s Weather: High 69, Low 47, Mostly Sunny

Sunrise: 4:46am, Sunset: 11:09pm

Total sea mammals observed: Humpback whale, orca, sea otter, sea lion

Total puffins species observed: 2, horned and tufted

Total watercraft: 1

Total bald eagles observed: dozens

Total orcas: too numerous to count

Total steps: 5,117

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Denali National Park and Preserve

Location: Denali National Park

Ryan woke up at 2:00 AM last night to be on the lookout for the Northern Lights. This would have been the middle of the “night”, but with extreme latitude it never actually gets dark this time of year. So with the twilight, the mostly cloudy skies and the inferior Kp<.33, Ryan didn’t bother to leave the hotel room to look for the aurora, and instead went back to asleep.

A few hours later we both woke up, packed up the car and left for Denali National Park. We arrived about 15 min later and waited for the Wilderness Access Center to open. Afterwards, we retrieved our tickets for the Toklat shuttle, got stamps for our national park passport book, and watched a short movie on the history of the park.

At 7:15 we boarded the shuttle (converted school bus) and made our way into the park. Our driver and defacto guide was Wendy, who has been driving this route for years. While the shuttle drivers are under no obligation to narrate or stop for wildlife, most do. We were fortunate that Wendy loved to look at the wildlife and provide great information to everyone on the shuttle.

Our ride took us about 60 miles deep into the park, to the Toklat stop. Along the way we saw four of the Denali Big Five (bear, sheep, moose, caribou, and wolves). We didn’t see the wolves, whose numbers are in great decline in the park.

We did see plenty of moose though. About 8-9 over the course of the day. These are somewhat rare to see, with only about 25% getting a chance to see them.

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A baby moose
A baby moose

We got to see three grizzly bears, only one of which was in a good position to get great pictures.

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We also saw plenty of sheep

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…and caribou.

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We also saw the state bird of Alaska, the Willow Ptarmigan.

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The weather was rainy, snowy, and overcast for most of the day, so we didn’t take many landscape photos.

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After the tour we drove back to Anchorage. We stopped at the northern Denali overlook again. We were clouded out of seeing any of Denali.  So instead we took this photo of a bear safety poster presented at the site.

Tomorrow we go down to Seward and take a boat tour of Kenai Fjords National Park.

Today’s weather: High 50, Low 30, rain/snow

Sunrise: 4:09am, Sunset 11:34pm

Total steps: 4,819

Top of the World

Location: Barrow, Alaska

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It should not surprise our regular readers that we (read: Ryan) like to go to geographical extremes on our trips. Today was the day or our trip that reached a new distance goal. Our destination today was well above the Arctic Circle: Barrow, Alaska, the northernmost part of the United States.

Currently Barrow is experiencing 24 hr daylight. This served to really mess with our internal clocks and calendars. But it’s also a great deterrent for vampires.

Just like previous days, we woke up pretty early to catch a flight. We got to the airport, then took a plane north toward Prudhoe Bay. We hoped to be able to get some good pictures during the flight, but because of the clouds (and the fact that we were on the starboard side of the plane) we were unable to see Denali. We arrived at Prudhoe Bay, Alaska without incident. We had a short stop where some passengers deplaned and a few more got on board. We didn’t even have to change seats. After another 35 min flight we arrived at Barrow.

We arranged a tour with the Top of the World hotel. They picked us up at the airport, and then took us to the hotel to see local Inupiat dancers. After the show, we went for a tour of town.

We got to see many of the highlights of the town, the whale bone arches and any other whale bone artifacts, ice cellar (where whale meat is stored), the smurf turf high school football field (as seen on ESPN), and the northernmost bridge in the world.

Whale bone arch
Whale bone arch
Blue astroturf football field.
Blue astroturf football field.

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We even got to see the Barrow palm trees, made up of driftwood and baleen.

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The tour took us to northernmost point of the US road system. We got out here to touch the Arctic Ocean. With this stop we have now visited all five of the worlds oceans (North and South Atlantic, North and South Pacific, Indian, Southern, and Arctic). From here we could also see Point Barrow, the northernmost point in the US, a few miles off in the distance. Because of the constant threat of polar bears, and presently unfavorable terrain, we weren’t able to actually make it to the point. We made it as far as 71.357353 N, 156.538716 W,  close enough though.

Point Barrow
Point Barrow
Touching the Arctic Ocean
Touching the Arctic Ocean
Touching the Arctic Ocean
Touching the Arctic Ocean

Afterwards we went to see some whaling boats. The locals have a tightly regulated indigenous whaling culture. The whaling techniques are essentially unchanged for thousands of years, including the use of seal skin paddle driven longboats, and hand thrown harpoons.

Whaling boat
Whaling boat

All along the tour we were on the lookout for wildlife. We didn’t see any polar bears, but we did see some seals out on the ice. We were too far to get pictures good enough to post here. Near the end of hte tour we ventured out into the Tundra to look for snowy owls. The original name for the area, Utqiaġvik, actually translates to “place to hunt snow owls”. We found one, and Rachel got some pictures.

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We were also taken to the grocery store, just to show how expensive food is priced. $10+ for a gallon of milk, $18 for orange juice, $8 for a bag of chips. Everything has to be flown in, and foods with expiration dates can be very expensive.

The tour concluded with a stop at the Inupiat Heritage Center, where we learned more about the local culture, whaling, and Inupiat art. The Heritage Center is affiliated with the park service, and we got our National Parks passport book stamped.

Lastly we took a flight back to Anchorage. This time we were on a direct flight. Again we were on the wrong side of the plane (port) to see any mountains.

Tomorrow we visit Talkeetna and drive up to Denali.

Today’s weather: High 41, Low 29, Overcast

Sunrise: NA (3:00am May 10), Sunset: NA (1:52am August 2)

Total flights: 3

Total Oceans seen: 2 (Pacific, Arctic)

Northernmost point: 71.357353 N

Total Steps: 10,629

The Top Of The World
The Top Of The World

The Lost City of Chichen Itza

Location: Cozumel and Yucatan Peninsula, Mexico

Today was the long awaited day where we got to tour ancient Mayan ruins. The excursion to see the city of Chichen Itza was the entire reason we booked this cruise itinerary.

The excursion itself is very long. Those on this tour are the first people to leave the ship, and usually the last ones back aboard. We left the ship a little after 930, walked along the dock until we boarded a ferry boat to Playa del Carmen. It was a large and comfortable ferry, and the excursion people on the Freedom told us that the weather was great. Sadly nobody bothered to tell that to the surf.

We had read that the ferry ride can be rough. So we took dramamine pills and wore wrist bands to help control the sea sickness. We boarded the ferry to and tried to stay in the back so even further reduce the motion. But we and everyone else on our tour moved to the fore of the ship to expedite our egress upon arrival.  After about 20 min of waiting the crew then boarded several dozen 15-16 year old girls on quinceanera. It was a loud trip across the channel. And very rough too! The ships bounced on the waves and swayed back and forth, no one was happy with the ride, and many people couldn’t keep breakfast down. The pills and bracelets helped us maintain our composure.

After we docked in Playa, we were transferred to a tour bus. Then we went on a 2.5 hr drive on a highway through the jungle. We were given a small snack to eat during the drive. Our tour guide Luis spent most the time telling us about the area and Mayan history.

After a while we made it to the ruins of Chichen Itza. It took some time for everyone to get off the bus and for us to make it through the long lines to get into the site. By the time everything was done, we would have only 45 min on site. Not nearly enough time. We were also given bottled water to drink in the park.

We got to see the El Castillo, the giant ancient Mayan pyramid. Another tour guide, Armando, explained the significance of the pyramid and how it was used a giant solar calendar. He also demonstrated how sounds bounced off all of the structures in interesting ways. For instance the sound of clap coming off El Castillo sounded like a chirping bird.

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El Castillo
El Castillo
El Castillo

We also got to see the Temple of the Warriors, where sacrifices occurred, the Venus Temple, and the great ballcourt. Everything was built with an astronomical purpose in mind.

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Temple of the Warriors

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The latter of which is the largest ball arena in the Americas. The playing field is over 550×230 ft. We were told that the games were played every 4 years, only on the leap day, and that it was the captain of the winning team who was sacrificed. Because only the blood of the victor would be worthy.

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Great Ball Arena

All too soon we were herded outside of the park and back onto the bus. We had to get back to the ship in time. We were given a box lunch and soda to eat on the way back. The 2.5 hour drive went by without note. We also had to take the ferry again back to the ship. This time, we sat in the back and the seas were calmer.

Tomorrow is our last full day on the ship. It is an “at sea” day. We plan to spend it relaxing by the pool.

Total steps: 10,072

Total complimentary purell squirts: 6