Saturday, January 29, 2022

Why you should visit Big Bend National Park

Driving through Big Bend

As you approach Big Bend National Park in far west Texas, your first view might be of the desert. It is brown and dry with prickly plants everywhere. Heat and seasonal winds can bring scorching temperatures at midday. Or visit in winter when northern storms cause temperatures to plummet below freezing.

Plentiful cacti blooms

If that’s your introduction to Big Bend National Park, you might stop short of actually going in the park. After all, the entrance is 80 miles from the nearest town, so you might think getting there from Marathon means you’ll likely be stuck all day in this unfriendly environment. If first impressions like this are lasting, people either lover Big Bend or hate it.

But, if you don’t venture further into the park you won’t discover the wonders of the three ecologies that define Big Bend.

Beautiful views on Lost Mine hiking trail.

Beyond the Chihuahuan Desert (one of North America’s four major deserts) are the Chisos Mountains. A green island in this desert sea, the mountains are responsible in part for the desert since they block rain from reaching the prairie. But within this green oasis are a variety of plants and animals that you might not expect to see there. 

Mountains in the Chisos Basin

White-tailed deer, bears, and coyotes range here, and leathery succulent plants of the arid landscape give way to green leafy shrubs and trees and spring wildflowers. Rainfall in the Chisos Basin nourishes oak and juniper trees, even becoming home to bird species that only nest in these mountains.

Seeing a mother bear and two cubs was a highlight.

Santa Elena Canyon is a focal point 
of Big Bend.
And then there’s the Rio Grande River, whose distinctive curve gives the park its name. The life-giving waters of this green ribbon cut across the desert and carve deep canyons.  

For 118 miles the Rio Grande forms the boundary between the United States and Mexico. In fact, one of the park’s best-known features, Santa Elena Canyon, is shared by the two countries—its rugged south wall towers above Mexico while the smoother north wall lies on United States soil.

Elevation contrasts and multiple ecologies formed by a trio of river, desert, and mountains create microclimates that enhance the diversity of plant and animal life within the park’s boundaries. 

Hiking to Balanced Rock
Birding is a popular endeavor because many species of birds include Big Ben on their migratory routes between South, Central, and North America.

Big Bend must be explored to be appreciated. You can find interpretive displays and easy walks to scenic or historic points on paved roads. If you want to be more than a spectator, strap on a back pack and go hiking--trails range from easy to challenging. Then raft amazing canyons, go off road on a jeep tour, ride bikes on back country roads, or inhale spectacular vistas from horseback.

Sunset looking through the Window between mountains

Not to be overlooked is the peace and serenity that this remote area offers. Many visitors return year after year to revel in the solitude of their favorite happy places.

You can't find a more glorious drive than early morning to Chisos Basin.

I’ve visited Big Bend National Park several times and have fallen in love with its distinctive character. Every time I go there, I discover more dimensions of its natural beauty. If you visit the park, give yourself enough time to indulge and savor all it has to offer. You, too, will come to love this iconic place.


Saturday, January 22, 2022

Saving your travel memories

If you’re an avid traveler, chances are you also love taking photos. Larry and I can take several thousand on a weeks-long trip. Whether you use an actual camera, (DSLR, mirrorless, or point and shoot variety) or a smartphone (cameras are excellent these days), taking digital photos is really easy. So we snap away, sometimes taking the same scene from various angles in order to choose the best. It’s also easy to delete those that don’t measure up to “copying” status.

Large cover photo highlights contents of a photo book

So our online file of travel photos continues to grow. Trying to share a huge stash of photos on the computer is counter-productive. And we know that not everyone enjoys reliving our latest adventures. The goal is to garner interest without causing friends to slip into head-nodding boredom and to also have easy access to our memories when we’re feeling nostalgic.

Make a photo book

I have found that photo books are an excellent way to preserve these memories. There are many companies (Shutterfly was one of the first) that will print your photos in a book format. Some services will take your photos and place them in a book format for you. That option might be okay if you’re only recording one event or place and don’t have a gazillion photos. It’s a quick and easy way to the finished product.

Photo book covers work with your chosen picture
and offer options with color, style, font, and more.

Because pictures of our travels feel very personal, I prefer to place them myself. I know which ones are most important to us and the order that I’d like to showcase them. I also include sufficient explanatory text, which isn’t possible unless I do it myself. Besides, making the book satisfies my creative streak.

The process is fairly standard, regardless of which company you use. First, you choose the photos that you want included. Selecting and editing the photos to be used is often the most time-consuming part of the process for me, especially when we have hundreds or thousands of photos to wade through. But it’s also very important if you want to make a high quality book with the best photos possible.

Each page can be customized as you wish.

Next, upload the photos from your computer or phone into the template you’ve chosen. If a company offers storage, you could transfer the pictures to that site and work from there. I typically place photos in somewhat of a chronological order and find it easier to manage placing the photos if I only upload around 20-30 p at a time.

Many design options are available to choose from when you actually start placing photos on the pages. You can choose the size of the book, which can range from 8 x 8 to 12 x 12 inchers, and the cover design and material (hard or soft). Select a theme or style, backgrounds for interior pages, placement of each picture on the page (as well as number of photos per page), and different creative embellishments to add interest to your masterpiece. As for text, you can choose the font style, color, size, and placement.

Frames showcase special photos.

This is where you let the creative juices flow. Each page might have a different background, or you can be consistent with the same one throughout. Let the pictures be your guide as to placement and how many fit well on a page. A selection of layouts will probably be provided, but you can customize the layout however you wish. Cute labels, quotes, stickers, borders, frames, and more will add to the personalization of your book.

Embellishments include preprinted sayings,
pictures, quotes, and decorations.

When you have finished, especially if you have added text, ask another person to proofread for you. We’ve found that another set of eyes really helps prevent typos and misspellings (and we still miss something in almost every book I make!).

 In addition to recording our many travels, I have made books for presentation at weddings and books that tell and preserve life stories of older persons. I’ve made books recording special experiences such as sky diving and family reunions. There is a learning curve, but the process gets easier with each book you make.

Example of a double page spread

The finished product is a professional looking keepsake that you’ll be proud to show to others. And you will cherish the memories that are so beautifully displayed in your unique story.

Sunday, January 16, 2022

To cruise or not to cruise?

Ultimately we decided to cruise

It was a dilemma between making what appeared to be the sensible choice and staying home or escaping the box we had been huddled in for almost two years. My brain had one solution, but my spirit had another. And that’s why Larry and I went on a cruise in early 2022, just as the omicron virus swept our state and county into the worst scenario since the pandemic began almost 2 years ago.

We had traveled during 2021, visiting Big Bend National Park in Texas in April and Fort Lauderdale, Florida in March. We celebrated our grandson’s high school graduation in Michigan in May. By July the virus had loosened its grip on our lives, and travel seemed okay again. So in August we swam with whale sharks off the Yucatan peninsula of Mexico and finally took the trip to Italy that had been rescheduled three times. We even visited Colorado for a glorious week hiking among the golden aspens of autumn. And all went well.

A previous Caribbean cruise was already booked for mid January, but the delta virus became a headliner, so we cancelled. Felt like that was the smart (safe) thing to do, and it was. But wanderlust crept into my consciousness, and by November I was ready to try again—just on a smaller scale.

Inviting pool area of the ship

Instead of flying to a Florida port for a 12-day cruise, maybe we could sail from Galveston, our state’s home port only a 3.5 hour drive away for a quick one-week excursion. We had received our two vaccines and would soon receive the booster shot, so, together with distancing and masking, we’d have ample protection. A cruise leaving on January 2 was booked.

Then omicron began spreading faster than milk spilled on the kitchen table. Friends on a long holiday cruise texted about not being able to disembark at most ports. They were stuck on the ship for weeks (at least it seemed that long) with not much to do except watch waves curl and splash in the ocean. The CDC began issuing dire warnings about ships with 10 or 20 or 50 people on board who tested positive for covid (not considering it was usually less than one percent of the number of people on board and most had very mild or no symptoms).

Still, being quarantined at sea in a small cabin would not be fun. Nothing adventurous about that.

One week before sailing we considered cancelling. Because our cruise line was allowing passengers to cancel up to 48 hours before sailing in return for full future cruise credit, people began doing just that.

For a few days, we had a new argument for going. With only about half the passengers still booked, social distancing would be easier, and service would likely be much improved. We began to reverse our decision. Call it rationalization or an actual shift in the likelihood of getting sick, we latched onto that fact. Also, all passengers and crew were required to be fully immunized, and we had to present a negative covid test taken two days before sailing.


The usual excitement was missing as we packed for the cruise. There were still so many unknowns, but we were willing to do our part to make this as personally safe as possible. That commitment and willingness to be extra vigilant on the cruise served us well.

Sailing day was uncharacteristically cold and windy as we drove to Galveston, Texas. Bundled in sweaters and puffy jackets, we parked the car, took the shuttle to the dock, and boarded the Royal Caribbean Liberty of the Seas. Fully vaccinated passengers were provided green wrist bands to be worn at all times. This would allow them access to certain dining areas, theater seating, and venues designated for vaccinated persons.

Fish and coral from our snorkeling
excursion at Roatan, Honduras

Because of predicted inclement weather, the captain changed the order of ports and headed to our southernmost stop in Roatan, Honduras. From there we would follow a northward journey that included Costa Maya and Cozumel. This new itinerary meant we had two sea days before docking--a brilliant decision that ultimately allowed passengers to have three perfect days for land activities. Winter in the Caribbean did not disappoint!

We were careful about our activities. We masked up indoors and also outdoors if there was a crowd of people around. We requested, and were given, a table for two in an out-of-the- way location but still by a window—the same table every evening in the main dining room.

We walked the promenade decks for additional exercise on sea days, played mini golf or ping pong when those venues were not crowded, and enjoyed our balcony when the weather warmed. We danced to our favorite band several nights and enjoyed a couple of game shows in vaccinated-only venues.

We rafted to a beautiful lagoon near Costa Maya, Mexico

We managed to catch the ice show before it was cancelled due to cast members quarantining (our green bracelets were checked). One main show in the theater was also cancelled, but the evening I forgot my green bracelet I was denied entry to the vaccinated seating section until I went back to the cabin to retrieve it. Tours were also lightly attended, with one of ours having only nine people and another only four.

Yet omicron continues to affect the cruising industry. Royal Caribbean and other cruise lines have cancelled many U.S. departures into March. As for Royal Caribbean, since the resumption of sailing, the total percentage of persons to become ill with the virus onboard their ships is 1.6, much lower than the general population in many areas. Crew members cannot leave the ship when in port, and some have had contracts extended longer than originally intended to shore up staff numbers. Senior officers became dining room servers when needed. Safety and service were still primary, and I give the cruise industry credit for doing the best they can.

We explored the ocean via a helmet dive 
at Cozumel, Mexico

Whether you decide to cruise in the coming months (assuming your cruise is not cancelled) is a personal choice. It’s a decision that only you can make by taking into consideration your medical situation and your tolerance for risk. Even as we know that all travel is inherently risky, we also know there are many benefits to exploring the rest of the world.

Sunday, January 9, 2022

What's in and what's out for 2022 travel?

The world’s most experienced travelers shared their insights and expectations for destination preferences, modes of transportation, and decision-making criteria in the Global Rescue Traveler Sentiment and Safety Survey. 

In a nearly unanimous response, domestic travel is “IN” but travelers are closely split when it comes to international travel. Fifty-eight percent of survey-takers say international travel is “OUT” while 42% say foreign trips are “IN.”  

Sedona, Arizona

Despite the split in opinion, traveler confidence is surging. TSA data indicates traveler levels have returned to 85% of their pre-pandemic levels. According to the 2021 Fall Global Rescue Traveler Sentiment and Safety Survey, nearly 86% of travelers have taken domestic trips, and 42% have traveled internationally since the pandemic started a year a half ago.   

Air and automobile travel are considered “IN” but large ship cruises are overwhelmingly “OUT.” One survey-taker said, “cruises are still out, except for smaller river cruises”   

AMA Serena, a river cruise ship

Travelers are basing their destinations on new, pandemic-related criteria. Locations with low-COVID-19 infection rates are, understandably, preferred over regions with high-COVID-19 infection incidents. “Countries and states with good, clear COVID-19 management, vaccination protocols and medical response plans are IN. Avoiding states and countries where COVID-19 education and vaccinations responses have lagged are OUT,” said one respondent.  

Old Faithful, Yellowstone
National Park

On another level, travelers are seeking uncrowded, remote or outdoor places to go. Historically, popular destinations are still in play if the COVID-19 rates are low [CDC COVID-19 Tracker]. Metropolitan areas in popular countries are generally “OUT” but cities with open spaces or located in less frequented areas are thought to be a viable option. “Out are large cities with no exposure to outdoor recreation,” said another respondent.   

Travelers are expecting to plan trips to more remote destinations, especially if it’s outside. But most are careful to point out that remote destinations are “OUT” if the local medical facilities are non-existent or insufficient to provide care for complicated injuries or illnesses, like COVID-19. “I would feel safe traveling internationally if I traveled to a country with modern medical facilities, a low COVID-19 rate, and available hospital beds if I had a medical problem while traveling,” said a respondent.  

This post was provided by Bill McIntyre at Global Rescue is the world’s leading provider of medical, security, evacuation and travel risk management services to enterprises, governments and individuals.  


Saturday, January 1, 2022

Why you should explore South America at these all-inclusive lodges

If you love natural beauty and adventure and want to explore the best that South America has to offer, check out the travel company called Explora. Every Explora lodge is a haven of luxury and relaxation—the perfect combination for adventures in your chosen destination.

Explora Rapa Nui on Easter Island

Explora is truly an all-inclusive adventure company. A stay in any of the lodges not only includes the best accommodations in the area but also superb meals and snacks, all excursions, a sumptuous pool, bicycles, walking sticks, and much more.

For the third year in a row, Explora has received the award for the World’s Leading Expedition Company at the 2021 World Travel Awards. Additionally, Explora in Peru’s Sacred Valley and Machu Picchu won honors as the World’s Leading Adventure Hotel. More awards include Best South American Expedition Company, Leading Boutique Hotel in Chile (Explora Atacama), Leading Boutique Hotel in Peru (Explora in Sacred Valley), and Leading Resort in Chile (Explora in Torres del Paine).

Explora El Chalten,  Argentina

A special feature of each lodge is that architecture reflects the culture, heritage, and local nature of the incredible place where it is located. Each lodge employs its own knowledgeable guides who lead guests through the territory’s most exceptional touring possibilities—always with a commitment to conservation of these beautiful natural wonders.

Explora Lodge, Patagonia

The newest destination to be served by Explora is El Chalten, Argentina. Located on the north bank of the Electrico River with unrivaled views of the Marconi Glacier and the Electrico Valley, the lodge has 20 rooms and is the perfect base for Argentine and international travelers to discover the wonders of  the Patagonia. It offers over 30 explorations with different levels of difficulty so travelers of all skill levels can visit the main attractions of this part of the world.

Map showing regions where Explora has lodges

A few years ago Larry and I stayed at Explora Rapa Nui on Easter Island and were blown away by the attention to detail and to every guest’s needs. Please click on this link to read more about our experiences at Explora on Easter Island.

Immediately on arrival, activities begin. Then, each afternoon the guides meet with guests to decide on the following day’s activities, keeping in mind interests and abilities of individual travelers. Sometimes we were in a small group; other times Larry and I were the only persons on a specific adventure. The result is a very individualized immersion into remote regions of the world—unforgettable places that are not overrun with tourists.

A visit to see the famous 15 moias on Easter Island
was one of our adventures through the Explora Lodge.

If you have an inquisitive personality and want to travel safely to amazing regions of the world, here is good news: A recent study highlighted Chile as the country best prepared to deal with the Covid virus and its variants. More than 85% of the population has been vaccinated and more than 50 % have received a third booster shot.

Staying at an Explora lodge is not the least expensive way to experience outstanding South American destinations—but considering all that is included, it is among the very best.

Photos by Larry and Beverly Burmeier and free sources