Author Archives: Bob and Janice Kollar

About Bob and Janice Kollar

Bob and Janice are specialized Travel Writers focused on Independent Travelers following Inspired Itineraries in Europe, Mexico, Canada and the United States. Their stories are syndicated on several prominent online travel outlets and reflect their adventures of over twenty years of travel. Bob is a retired Computer Technology Sales Executive and has over two million miles logged on domestic and international airlines. Janice is a photographer and is a professional Fine Art Restorer in private practice. Bob and Janice introduce their readers to slow travel concentrated on vacation rentals, culinary explorations and absorbing the “local” vibe of each destination. Their tag line is “After all, what is the hurry… be inspired!”

Creating Cuisine in Sayulita on the Riviera Nayarit, Mexico

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What is it about Sayulita on the Riviera Nayarit in Mexico that keeps drawing us back?  Located just north of Puerto Vallarta it’s a world removed from the “typical” tourist destination.

Is it because it’s a sleepy little fishing village with a laid back, surfer vibe that caters to our inner child of just being free to explore the ocean, the beach, and the Mexican culture of years gone by?

Is it that it’s a village that defies the temptation of becoming overly commercialized which in turn would destroy the warmth and charm of a hidden gem?

Is it the sandy beachfront with a long, gentle surf break with warm, clear water?

We believe it is all of the above and the “Sayulita Good Vibes” is really a state of mind that all visitors experience… and we are continually drawn back.

Establish a Base Camp

This article focuses on eating… plain and simple… since most everything you eat here is fresh, locally sourced, and reasonably priced.

Sayulita is an epicurean delight with exceptional dining options from “street food” to full gourmet restaurants.

We usually select the road-less-traveled and find vacation rentals that boast a well-equipped chef’s kitchen.

Once again Sayulita Life (https://www.sayulitalife.com/) becomes the go-to site.  They represent over 400 vacation rental options and we usually find the “perfect” place.

We love to cook and on this trip we lured two other couples with like minds to join us. Looking for a place for three couples to share brings the price point for the more expensive properties into a much more reasonable price range, too.

 A Cornucopia of Fresh Ingredients

Sayulita and other surrounding villages have organized and scheduled many fresh air farmers markets that stress organic options, offering local fruits and vegetables.

One of our favorite markets was a short drive south of Sayulita in the La Cruz Marina Fish Market on Banderas Bay where you can purchase freshly caught fish, shrimp, lobsters, oysters and other assorted seafood all for great prices.

Fish markets have been a staple in Banderas Bay for generations, in fact many of the restaurants, personal chefs and caterers in the area shop here daily for their seafood.

In addition, the Sunday market features handmade items by locals as well as from the indigenous tribes in the area… each vendor can only sell what they personally made… now that is local pride.

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One of several fish stalls

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Huge spiny lobster resting on assorted filleted fish

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The Dorado still have their color… that’s FRESH

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Live crabs, octopus and squid

We took the following  YouTube video when we were at the market and it demonstrates how a professional fillets a Dorado….. Enjoy!

https://youtu.be/dCCHLbZmX24

Eating IN… The Personal Chef Option

For a special treat we hired three professional chefs on three different evenings to share their talent and treat us to their regional cooking from their respective heritages.

Justifying the decision to hire a personal chef for three couples that love to cook themselves was not difficult considering the alternatives.

Imagine if you will dining in the comfort of your vacation rental, and the only thing you have to do is to enjoy the cooking demonstration (if you want to), savor a refreshing beverage and anticipate the fabulous cuisine being made expressly for you and your taste preferences.

There is no shopping for the ingredients, no prepping, no plating, and best of all… no cleaning up.   Everything takes place like magic… and for less than the cost of a similar meal at an outside restaurant.

You owe it to yourself to try it at least once for a special date or event and besides you are all on vacation… so create a memory!

The following are three unique chefs with their own style and specialties…. all waiting for your call.

Chef Laura

We were introduced to Laura as our housekeeper at Villa Sol Blau and were told she is an excellent cook having prepared meals for numerous guests.

What we discovered is that Laura uses family recipes matched with local fresh ingredients and treats her dining patrons like “family” as she lavishes the warmth and grace of her heritage… we enjoyed a traditional meal and Laura’s charming personality… “Mom” was in the kitchen!

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Laura plating our authentic regional meal

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Green Chile enchiladas and traditional slow cooked black beans

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Chile Relleno with a poblano sauce and rice based on a family recipe

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 Homemade Flan

 Chef Sofia Silva Sanchez

We “found” Chef Sofia on the Sayulita Life site and she also has her own webpage (http://sayulitachef.com/).  After reading the glowing reviews as well as her extensive menu options we made a date for dinner.

Sofia is a vibrant, effervescent, and a very personable individual and as a chef her wide range of cooking skills extend from traditional Mexican cuisine to menus offering Italian, Indian, Moroccan, Vegetarian and Vegan options.

Her excellent dessert reputation is definitely understated!

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Cucumber cups stuffed with shrimp ceviche

sphia salad

Fresh organic green salad with Chipotle dressing

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Tender pieces of baked chicken in a poblano sauce with rice

sophia food cake

Key Lime Pie topped with strawberries and mint

 Chef Daniel Murillo

Chef Daniel is the consummate professional and performs his cooking with a flair… literally he lights up the room!  Can you say…. Flambe!

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Daniel owns the restaurant Mexotix in the neighboring town of San Pancho which is a short drive north of Sayulita.  He offers his catering and cooking services in Sayulita and we have enjoyed his exceptional “Mexican-Fusion with an Asian Twist” style on numerous occasions. (https://www.sayulitalife.com/mexotik)

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Chef Daniel and his Sous Chef Juan

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Seared Tuna with sesame crust served over tostini 

Empanadas stuffed with shrimp sautéed in citrus salsa & melted panela cheese

Octopus in orange reduction with hibiscus & chipotle served with coconut rice

 Eating IN… Prepare a Dining Experience Yourself

The three couples set up a friendly competition and over the course of three nights it was game-on!  But our first stop was a trip to La Cruz Fish Market followed by visiting a variety of in-town markets and one more stop at the excellent fish market just over the bridge into town.

 

Three Team Challenge: Jumbo blue shrimp cooked three ways

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Huge Salads with Organic Greens 

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Spiny lobster ready for the melted butter

Sushi Grade Yellow Tail Tuna: five pounds for about $15

Summary

Creating cuisine in a village with a cadre of personal chefs, fresh seafood, organic farmers markets and local vendors offering all of the ingredients that you need to make unforgettable gastronomical experiences… all set in a semi-tropical locale… is simply very special.

The “Sayulita Good Vibes” is really a state of mind that all visitors experience… and we are continually drawn back! 

Viva Mexico…. Viva Sayulita! 

After all, what is the hurry… be inspired…

© 2017 Inspired Travel Itineraries with Bob and Janice Kollar

© 2017 Picture Credits: Bob and Janice Kollar

 

 

 

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Good Vibrations Found in Sayulita on the Riviera Nayarit, Mexico

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We heard about a sleepy little fishing village located just north of Puerto Vallarta, Mexico from friends that had visited the area and found this relatively hidden gem of a vacation destination, situated on a prime section of sandy beachfront with a long gentle surf break of warm, clear water.

The story goes that it was “discovered” by groups of traveling surfers in the 1960s and has maintained the charm and warmth of the Mexican culture of years gone by without becoming commercialized and kept it’s laidback surfer vibe.

We subsequently learned that the pueblo has developed into a “foodie mecca” specializing in unique regional cuisine based on recipes passed down through generations.

Sign us up… Sayulita… here we come!

Compact and Well Managed

North American expats make up a large segment of the population and play a dominant role in promoting and managing the commercial businesses.

The current population is estimated to be about 5,000 semi-permanent and permanent residents.  The flow of tourists is determined by a combination of the weather and seasons and the limited but excellent accommodations.

The months of November through April are considered the prime time to visit and usually attracts about 1,000 tourists a week.  With air and water temperatures around 75 – 80 degrees Fahrenheit… perfection comes to mind. 

Finding THE Place to Stay

We found that a locally based organization, Sayulita Life, offered the best match for our requirements.  There are numerous other rental sites offering the same homes but they typically have a service fee that usually ranges over $100… Sayulita Life does not charge a fee.

Their website (https://www.sayulitalife.com/) offers over 400 vacation rental listings and provides a comprehensive as well as a current wealth of information.

Casa Angel

We selected this fully equipped and well stocked three bedroom home high on a hillside in the north end of the town in an area called Nanzal Hill which is a little further away from the sometimes robust activity of the town center.

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The thatched roof of Casa Angel

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Casa Angel’s pool just after sunset

Getting to THE Place to Stay

The Puerto Vallarta airport is modern, spotless and very efficient.  Being our first time to a new destination we opted for a car service (Jose Ramos Transportation) for the 40 minute drive which cost about $150 for a round trip.

A friendly English speaking driver greets you upon arrival and helps you settle into an immaculate Suburban, offers a cold beverage and makes you feel welcome to his part of the world.

Provisioning the Vacation Rental

The driver continues toward our destination and follows a well-rehearsed routine with a side trip, to stock our vacation rental, at one of the largest grocery stores we have ever seen.  The MEGA offers everything,

Tourism may be relatively new to this area but they certainly understand the concept of visitors coming to have a good time and spend money.

This store has a complete line of groceries, fresh seafood, a large meat counter, local produce, and a delicatessen with a large cheese section, an on premise bakery, fresh tortillas, and a wide variety of prepared take-out meals.

Their wine, beer and liquor departments offer a wide selection at surprisingly reasonable prices.

If you forgot something they probably have a replacement as they also sell cosmetics, clothes, beach toys and even electronics.

After stocking up, the journey continues as we drive along a well-maintained roadway through a scenic jungle canopy and passing through a few small villages before we reach our destination.

The Vibe and Our First Meal

In the process of selecting and renting a villa, we established a relationship with the owner and their on-site property manager, Eric, who also happened to be the bartender at a popular restaurant who assisted us in ordering our first dinner, via email, before we even landed.

A quick phone call to Eric confirmed our arrival and that we were on our way to the restaurant.  This is apparently a “normal” exchange for the car service as it went so smoothly with Eric waiting at curbside with our take-out meal and the keys to the villa.

Our initial interaction in our new setting was so pleasant and how trusting everyone has been… we began to dial back our stress meter from the travel day and that first glass of wine was a toast to the Sayulita lifestyle and attitude. 

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Manchaca Enchiladas, Shrimp Tacos, Paella, Salad and Wine

First Impressions of Sayulita

Think of it as an adult playground with cobblestone streets and an array of transportation options… cars, trucks, horses, pedestrians and golf carts.

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Our very favorite mode of transportation was renting an electric golf cart which holds four passengers and comes equipped with cup holders for your favorite cold beverage…. Margaritas fit perfectly too.  We recommend Pacific Coast Golf Cars… centrally located and with a large inventory to choose from.

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The golf cart affords you fun transportation that is easy to park and opens up more options to explore the town and local surroundings such as a secluded beach next to a cemetery… no seriously, a great spot for peace and quiet.

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Dirt road through the jungle leading to a secluded beach

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One of many colorful and unusual grave sites

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Playa de Los Muertos 

Dining

There are over 100 dining options ranging from exceptional street tacos served on paper plates to fine dining with white tablecloth and candle light at gourmet restaurants on the beach.

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Camaron (Shrimp) and Pescado (Fish) Tacos

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“Pescado Zarandeado” Style Pink Snapper

A special dining treat is offered by over 17 personal chefs that will come to your rental villa and prepare regional specialties and provide a cooking class at the same time…. at very reasonable prices, too.

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Mexotik Owner – Daniel Murillo – Sautéing Octopus

Shopping

Clothing boutiques, art galleries, local artisans and indigenous people offering everything from rugs, ceramics, sculptures, tapestries, and handmade jewelry just to name a few items.

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Typical street scene

Hand Woven Wool Carpet – Exceptional Workmanship and Quality

Inviting stores with colorful and unusual items

All that shopping is exhaustive and a natural solution can be found in the over 25 different yoga, fitness, massage and holistic spa salons scattered throughout town.

For the exhibitionist on your shopping list there is a mineral mud massage “show” set up on the beach which includes a strange but comical masseuse covered in mud, complete with a feather headdress.

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Therapeutic Massage with Clay

Water Sports and Activities

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You are at a surf oriented beach… so get out there and experience the thrill.  As the saying goes… “Only a surfer knows the feeling”… just do it!

There are over a dozen surf schools and board rental operations right there on the beach.

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In addition to surfing, Sayulita has over twenty adventure tour operators offering horseback riding, jungle canopy/zip trek tours, scuba diving, snorkeling, fishing charters and ecosystem/bird watching explorations.

Summary

Sayulita exceeded our expectations and every day was full of positive experiences.

The warmth and charm of this village and its people have made an indelible mark on our travel writer hearts and as we departed Puerto Vallarta’s airport we were already planning our return.

Viva Mexico…. Viva Sayulita!

After all, what is the hurry… be inspired…

© 2017 Inspired Travel Itineraries with Bob and Janice Kollar

© 2017 Picture Credits: Bob and Janice Kollar

 

 

 

Enjoying Cajun Hospitality in New Iberia, Louisiana

 

New Orleans has the well-known reputation of party town central and an amazing assortment of fine dining establishments all wrapped up in a boisterous and lively bundle… think Mardi Gras festivities as standard fare concluding with gusto on the weekend.

But there really is a lot more to experience in Louisiana other than the repercussions of over indulging.

Going from Creole to Cajun in less than Two Hours

After four nights in New Orleans (Creole) we continued on to New Iberia (Cajun) to visit a family member and immerse ourselves in Cajun culture and cuisine as well as take in some of the unique experiences found only in “Cajun Country” and find the meaning of “Laissez les bons temps rouler! Let the good times roll!”

 First Stop is a Creole Plantation House

Our roll time to New Iberia was less than two hours so we exited onto the Great Mississippi River Road which is the home to dozens of beautifully restored antebellum plantations.  We selected the Laura Plantation (https://www.lauraplantation.com/).

The complex is significant due to the raised Creole plantation “big house” and its rare collection of outbuildings, including six slave quarters.

laura-plantation-550x253Raised Creole Plantation House

 Our Destination City – New Iberia

IMG_0213Bridge over the Bayou Teche

This small town with a big history is situated on the banks of the Bayou Teche which also provides the undercurrent for the history and pulse of New Iberia.

The Bayou was the route that the Spanish followed in the late 1700s when they came ashore and established themselves in the Spanish Lake area.  At around the same time the French Acadians were being driven out of Nova Scotia by the British for fighting alongside the French Troops.

The displaced Acadians eventually settled in Southern Louisiana blending with the French-Creoles, Spanish, Germans, Anglo-Americans and Native-Americans… they became known as Cajuns.

The fusion of these diverse ethnicities through the generations contributed to the uniqueness of their lifestyle, food, music, and attitudes to life… Laissez les bons temps rouler! 

During the Civil War the Bayou Teche and New Iberia were once again drawn into the spotlight as being an important gateway for the Union Army’s attack of the South… but that is a long story in itself for a future article.

A Visit to Avery Island is a Must

On the Green Side… Pepper Sauce Production

The claim-to-fame of this 2,200 acre island is that of being the birthplace of TABASCO® brand pepper sauce and being owned by the Marsh, Avery, and McIlhenny families for almost 200 years.

In addition to touring the factory, the beautifully maintained and picturesque grounds are the home of the Jungle Gardens / Bird City wildlife refuge… as well as the ever present alligators.

Four Production Lines can make over 700,000 2-oz. bottles per day

IMG_0423One of the Pepper Sauce Curing Warehouses

Underneath the Green Side… Salt Production

A little known point of interest is that the island sits atop a solid rock salt dome noted to be one of the largest salt mines in the world… it has been estimated to be deeper than Mt. Everest is high. 

s05_24042462Avery Island Salt Mine (not open to the public but it is there all the same)

 A Unique Swamp Tour Adventure

Our local expert scoped out the best swamp tour group, Cajun Country Swamp Tours (http://cajuncountryswamptours.com/).  Owned and operated by a father and son team, native to the area and educated in Zoology and Botany, they provided an eco-friendly, educational and enjoyable swamp tour into the swamplands of Acadiana known as Cypress Island/Lake Martin Swamp.

Shawn was our entertaining guide for the two hour adventure through ancient cypress trees covered with Spanish moss and waters that were teaming with wildlife… yes there were a lot of alligators too.

DSC_2327Open tour boat going into the swamp

IMG_0293Mangroves in Lake Martin Swamp

DSC_2338Getting a little sun and waiting for a snack

DSC_2354Spanish moss laced cypress trees

A New Iberia Native and Famous Author – James Lee Burke

James Lee Burke is a Pulitzer Prize winning author of detective stories and mysteries and is best known for his Detective Dave Robicheaux series of which two were portrayed on screen and filmed in New Iberia… first with Alec Baldwin (Heaven’s Prisoners) and then Tommy Lee Jones (In the Electric Mist).

 

IMG_0205“Dave Robicheaux Eats Here” at the landmarkVictor’s Cafeteria

IMG_0518Annual Celebration in Honor of James Lee Burke

A New Iberia Native and Famous Artist – George Rodrigue

Rodrigue’s Blue Dog paintings, based on a Cajun legend called loup-garou, catapulted him to worldwide fame.

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(Side Note: The Loup Garou is a Cajun legend about a creature with a human body and the head of a dog or wolf, and is said to prowl the swamps around Acadiana… something like a werewolf.)

The Bayou Teche Museum http://bayoutechemuseum.org/ proudly displays the art of George Rodrigue who is revered as a “true son of Louisiana… his art was inspired and enhanced by the landscape and people of Acadiana.”

IMG_0511Tour with a charming and  knowledgeable docent… Tanya Scott

Break Out the Tabasco – Sample Some Cajun Cuisine

You just cannot go to Cajun Country without getting your fix of Gumbo, Etouffee, Oysters (raw, fried or chargrilled), Crawfish (boiled or fried), and Shrimp (fried, boiled, or stuffed with crabmeat).

We wanted fresh, simple, flavorful dining and opted for one of the local favorites, Jane’s (on Jane Street, of course) offering casual dining without the frou-frou things like table cloths or linen napkins. (http://janesseafood.com/)

So before you wrinkle your nose, bear in mind that the long waiting lines on a typical day run about one hour.  People in this town know great food for a reasonable price.

Fresh Raw Gulf Oysters on Half Shell ($13 per dozen)
Chargrilled Gulf Oysters ($9.50 per half dozen)
Grilled Fresh Gulf Shrimp ($15 per dozen with sides)
Half/Half ($14.95)1/2 etouffee and 1/2 fried crawfish with a side salad, fries, hushpuppy, fried banana 

Victor’s Cafeteria is as down-home as you can get and judging from the crowds this restaurant is another local favorite… we ate our breakfast there every day of our visit.
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Special Breakfast for a Yankee Visitor  

Beau Soleil Café is a little more upscale and the menu offers amazing regional selections.  We opted for one of the more unusual appetizers… it was excellent! 

IMG_0404Legnon’s Boudin Egg Roll Appetizer

 A Special Place to Stay6

We selected the Gouguenheim located in the historic downtown district. It offers the amenities of a larger hotel but the intimacy of an upscale bed & breakfast inn/apartment.  (http://www.gouguenheim.com/index.php)

The wrap around balconies add a nice touch and the complimentary breakfast coupons for the popular Victor’s Cafeteria, which is right next store, is a great way to start your day.

 

Summary

Think about warm Southern hospitality with a Cajun twist and a shot of Tabasco, that   pretty much sums up our excursion into this corner of Louisiana.

In less than a two hour drive you are far away from the cacophony of the “Big Easy” and slowly drift into the Cajun rhythms as you experience a different way of life.

They may, just may, have something in their local expression of … Let the good times roll!

After all, what is the hurry… be inspired… get out there and experience life.

© 2017 Inspired Travel Itineraries with Bob and Janice Kollar

© 2017 Picture Credits: Bob and Janice Kollar, pinstopin.com, Gouguenheim.com, nolahomes.net, pinimg.com

 

 

 

 

 

A Mystical Journey on a River in a Cave on the Yucatan Peninsula

 

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During a recent visit to Playa del Carmen on the Yucatan Peninsula in Mexico, we became fascinated by the Mayan Culture and their spiritual history.  In addition to the dozens of ancient pyramid-temple ruins that are spread throughout the area, there are also numerous revered underworld caves to explore.

The Rio Secreto (www.riosecreto.com) is a highly recommended tour company that specializes in a naturalist’s approach to exploring these sacred caves as well as their religious significance, and interlaced with the excitement and adventure of swimming in an underground river and hiking through caves and caverns that are millions of years old.

Rio Secreto…. The Underground River in a Cave

We had an open, unplanned day and pondered a zip-line over the jungle canopy, an ATV driving experience through the jungle or an eco-tour in a cave.  Being out voted 2 to 1 we went with the “less strenuous” option and booked the cave excursion.

Arriving at the Base Camp

We arrived at the reception office located on the edge of the jungle reserve and boarded a van for a bumpy twenty minute ride further into the jungle to the base camp center where an orientation lecture took place.

We were briefed on the pristine nature of the environment we were about to enter and the importance that these caves and their freshwater played on the survival of the Maya people.

We immediately got the impression that we were about to embark on an interesting adventure with the potential of being something extraordinary.

After the orientation we reluctantly placed all of our valuables (watches, cameras, jewelry, wallets and IDs) into the lockers that are provided.  Next we all had a “cleansing” shower in our bathing suits (thank goodness) to rid us of all sprays, perfumes, and oils… that pristine thing again.

Time to dress for the occasion with a form flattering (maybe or maybe not) short sleeves, short legs wetsuit, booties, life jacket and a hard hat with a miner’s light… we are all getting a little more anxious but before you can chicken-out we are off to the actual cave’s entrance.

On the way we stopped for a Mayan blessing ceremony… all smoke no mirrors.

a_rs_2-013Mayan blessing before entering the sacred cave

Into the Cave and the Sacred River Chambers

Along the way our guide, Pablo, explained the objective of our journey… there are 13 “Good States” and 9 “Bad” and we were about to go through a “Re-Birth” underground to come up out of the cave into the Good State.  Is anybody following this?

Down the spiral staircase we go into the underworld of darkness with our hard hat lights on and our enthusiastic guide rattling on and on about the spiritual experiences we were going through.

We arrived at a flat spot and discussed the next phase… Can everybody swim?  Can everybody fit through a four square foot hole?  Is anyone claustrophobic?

OK…. Point of no return and you start to question exactly what the heck are you doing in a cave, in a jungle, in Mexico, with a stranger telling you how wonderful it will be!  This part was not in the promotional brochure!

The three of us in our group just looked at each other and came to an agreement that the trek back up was harder than going forward… let’s go for it!

Total Immersion Physically and Mentally

We were immediately rewarded for that decision when we saw the absolutely amazing mineral formations, chambers of crystals, stalactites and stalagmites, all of which took millions of years to create, and the view was enhanced by the crystal clear water of the Rio Secreto itself.

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It was onward and downward and the water was getting deeper… ankle to knee to chest to then floating in your life jacket in an underground river.

rio-secreto-011The water temperature was pleasant and the flow rate made the swim easier

 During the one and a half hour tour we wound up squeezing through a four square foot archway, walking and climbing through a series of caverns and swimming through clear blue pools (cenotes) propelled by the river itself.

The Underground Natural Cathedral Experience

The group glided along with our guides and a photographer until we settled in a shallow lagoon area and sat on the sandy edge… then it was “lights out” for about 5 minutes to “feel the spirit and tranquility of this sanctuary”.

Pitch black, with the faint sound of an occasional solitary water droplet off in the distance the senses of sight, smell, sound, and touch were all suspended in the darkness.

You really do get the spiritual effects of the moment.

We were instructed to turn our lights back on and look up at the ceiling.  We were sitting in what appeared to be a Cathedral of natural formations.

 5ea7b6f9-0f75-4072-87b2-096744ac81edSitting below a natural Cathedral Ceiling Millions of Years old

 Exiting the Underground and Our Rebirth

 The group moved in muted silence… climbing a gentle slope out of the underworld having our senses return, however slowly, as we were “reborn” into the real world… the smell of the damp and musty earth… the feeling of the humidity on our skin… the brightness of the colors and sunshine, and finally the sounds of the jungle.

The feeling of coming out of an absolutely foreign environment and into our “normal” world… was intense.

img117The path from the underworld back into the jungle area from whence we came

 Everyone was silent at first and then we all became very animated and excited about the visit to the Rio Secreto.

 A Poem by One of our Fellow Travelers Kathy Baus

 EL RIO SECRETO

alluring with / her many charms / she held mystery / in a sunless / sea of promises / as she slips / deep / into the crystallized / world below / carved and curving / she’s dark  / delicious / daring / divine / and dangerous / etched / with time / and water

Summary

The “least strenuous” tour option proved to be an absolutely amazing adventure for the spirit and the visual imagery of the mind.

WOW sums up our feelings!

After all, what is the hurry… be inspired…

© 2017 Inspired Travel Itineraries with Bob and Janice Kollar

©Kathy Baus, El Rio Secreto, October 26, 2016

© 2017 Picture Credits:

Please note that we were not allowed to use our cameras.

Images courtesy of the following:

Rio Secreto Web Page (www.riosecreto.com), blog.gessato.com, larsenoutdoors.com,

Elephantcarhire.net, imgesmx.olympustours1

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The “Painted Stone” : Celestún on Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula

 

 

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 On a recent visit to Merida, the capital city of the Yucatan State, we opted for a side trip to the Reserva de la Biosfera Ria Celestun (Celestun Biosphere Reserve).

This protected, coastal wetland reserve and wildlife refuge encompasses over 147,000 acres and showcases their hugh flocks of vibrant pink Caribbean Flamingos (Phoenicopterus ruber).

The flamingo nesting area was one thing, but pink was not the only spectacular color on parade.

We were pleasantly surprised by the wide spectrum of other colors that Mother Nature has on display… more than justifying the name Celestun which means “painted stone” in the Yucatec Maya language.

The Drive to Celestun from Merida

The drive out of Merida was through small, congested villages with multiple speed bumps and the occasional “traffic” jam created by the residents and their assorted modes of transportation and a livestock trailer or two.

img_2614Pedal Powerimg_2461Pass with caution

Once you get out of the city traffic and head southwest to the coastline you are driving on Route 281 which is a well-maintained two lane road that goes for 56 miles straight through the jungle… straight as an arrow… straight as a bowling alley with no intersections, or landmarks… just a hypnotic drive through millions of trees.

The ingenious people living along this strip of asphalt mark their homes/driveway by hanging painted tires from a tree to announce their location… such as… turn into the first driveway past the two red tires.

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Arriving at the Celestun Biosphere Reserve

There are numerous options for touring Celestun and the famous flamingos.  You can take an organized all day tour from Merida with transportation and lunch included, or drive yourself and make your own arrangements… dependence versus independence… as usual we opted for the latter.

The official reception area is well marked and set up for tour buses and car parking.  We purchased our “cuota de recuperacion por servicios” (admission tickets) at the office and arranged for a boat.  (This was about 175 pesos or less than $20 USD at the time.)

img_2576Tour Boat dock area

There was another couple scheduled for our tour but they did not show up so after five minutes we left the dock with our now private tour guide Francesco and a pleasant, smooth ride out into the vast lagoons and mangroves.

img_2510Francesco, our friendly and knowledgeable guide

The flamingos were the main attraction but to our amazement the reserve proved to be an outstanding excursion into nature on dramatically colorful and calm waters throughout the shallow lagoons.

img_2496The tour boats keep a respectful distance from the birds img_2492More mature birds with deeper pink tints  img_2529A small group of young birds with various shades of white and pink colors

 As a flamingos go… you-are-what and where-you-eat. 

These majestic, social birds live in groups consisting of a few pairs to thousands and they forage in these shallow lagoons for algae and small crustaceans, such as shrimp, which provide their vibrant colors.

img_2488You are what you eat has a new meaning  img_2506

img_2505Edge of a shallow feeding shelf

 Cruising through a Bird Sanctuary

There are over 300 different migratory and resident bird species nesting here; the largest mangrove area in the Gulf of Mexico.

Celestun biosphere reserve is also “home’’ to other critters such as jaguars, ocelot, crocodiles, iguanas, boa constrictors, and four different species of sea turtles… Hawksbill, Green, Loggerhead, and Leatherback, as well as assorted land turtles, to name a few.

Yes it IS a jungle out there!

  img_2518 Bird watchers paradiseimg_2525

  The Painted Stone’s Water Features

Throughout the boat ride you are continually going from one color hue to another. The blending of saltwater and freshwater with the algae along the mangroves produces amazing pigments throughout the reserve.

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 Fresh Water from Underwater Aquifers

The water becomes crystal clear inside the mangroves and our tour boat captain skillfully worked our way through assorted tree tunnels and passageways up to a boardwalk area inside the canopy.

We were invited to jump in and swim in this tranquil natural pool setting but remembering the part about crocodiles during the over view and we opted to just take some pictures.

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A stunningly beautiful tunnel in the Mangroves

img_2566Shimmering clear fresh water giving off a “Monet” effect

img_2564Deceptively deep crystal clear water

 After the two hour tour we headed to the beach for a few cold beers and lunch…. It was tough saying “wow, look at that!” andisn’t that beautiful!” andwhat colors!” for almost two hours.

The Beach Dining Options

 We drove to the beach area and the recommended “La Palapa Restaurant”.  The Yucatecan Cuisine menu was a seafood lover’s delight with all local and fresh ingredients such as shrimp, lobster, fish, blue claw crabs, stone crabs, conch, octopus, and crab cakes.

La Palapa Restaurant on the beach in Celestun

 Quesadillas De Camaron (tortillas stuffed with cheese and shrimp)

Mojo De Ajo (fish fillets and grilled octopus in butter and garlic sauce) 

The eventful day was topped off by a delicious and memorable meal which made the drive back to Merida more pleasurable…. still boring and hypnotic… but tolerable.

Summary

The Painted Stone provided us with vivid memories and we were awestruck by this abundant and beautiful environment which awaits the adventurous that step out of the tourist comfort zone and into exploring nature in its purest state.

 

After all, what is the hurry… be inspired…

 

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© 2017 Inspired Travel Itineraries with Bob and Janice Kollar

© 2017 Picture Credits Bob & Janice Kollar

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Los Dos Cooking School in Merida, Mexico; Remembering Chef David Sterling

In pursuit of the holy grail of Yucatecan Mexican cuisine we selected the renowned “Los Dos” cooking school, created by the famous chef David Sterling, which is located in Merida, the capital of the Yucatan Peninsula… we were not disappointed.

Merida Orientation

In the course of booking the class we developed a rapport with David and he proved to be a remarkable source of information about his beloved Merida.

He answered our multiple email questions with points of interest, places to stay and provided a list of his favorite restaurants and surprisingly there are many in this small but bustling city.

We chose one of the oldest hotels in the city, Casa Del Balam (The House of the Jaguar) for its charm, authenticity and central location which is in the heart of the “old town” area and it turned out to be a very good choice.

The Los Dos Cooking School

Credentials

David Sterling founded the “Slow Food Chapter of Yucatan” in 2009 and in 2014 he authored “Yucatan: Recipes from a Culinary Expedition” which won the James Beard Foundation Best Cookbook of the Year Award in 2015…a huge accolade, indeed.

His school was the first to specialize in the cuisine of Yucatan and has been featured in several magazines such as Condé Nast Traveler, Gourmet, and Travel & Leisure, as well as television exposure with celebrities such as Oprah Winfrey, Rick Bayless, and Martha Stewart.

We asked ourselves, “What are we getting involved in?  Is it over our skill set?  This is some serious stuff… can we hold a spatula to it?”

 The Experience Begins

After a light breakfast we hailed a taxi to Calle 68 No. 517, Colonia Centro and arrived in front of a non-descript doorway on a street of colorful but similar facades.

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We hesitantly knocked on the door which opened onto an oasis garden courtyard within the walls of a magnificent colonial mansion dating back to the mid-1800s.

There, we were welcomed by our gracious host, David, and our cooking journey begins with a smile and a handshake.

img_2875Entrance to the courtyard

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Poolside garden area

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Now THIS is a kitchen

 Welcome to Los Dos Cooking School

img_2865David greeting his guests and serving a light breakfast

We were escorted into the home and introduced to 8 other students who were mingling around a breakfast buffet of homemade pastries and fruit.

David began the session with a very knowledgeable as well as entertaining history of Yucatan and Yucatecan cooking.

A Brief History

The Yucatan Peninsula is located on the cusp of the Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean and as such the land mass became a magnet for early traders seeking access to Mexico.

The cultural tapestry of the Yucatan is based on the foundation of the ancient Maya tribes and a blending of the Spanish, French, Dutch, Portuguese, Lebanese and Caribbean merchants that visited over the centuries.

 We learned about the unique cooking techniques, a wide range of spices, marinades, adobos, pastes diluted with sour orange juice, sauces from nuts, and of course, the infamous Habanero chile, one of the hottest in the world.

The knowledge transfer was reinforced by actually smelling and tasting some of these new ingredients as they were passed around the room in assorted containers during David’s discussion.

Class Field Trip to the Marketplace

The first stop was a sampling of traditional street food.

We enjoyed tacos al pastor which is slices of meat (usually pork) from a spit-grilled rack known as a shawarma (introduced by Lebanese immigrants) onto a corn tortilla topped with a slice of pineapple.

Tacos with pineapple slices

Getting Provisions for the Class

Chef David led us on a market tour in search of today’s ingredients.

The blocks-long Central Mercado is in the heart of the city, filled with everything from fresh produce, spices, raw and cooked meats, bread, pastries, and even household items, clothing and toys… a rural form of Costco.

A person could spend hours exploring and relishing the colors, the sounds, the aromas, and vibrancy.  But we had a mission…

Ingredients for the Pollo Pibil

Tomatoes, banana leaves, habanero chile peppers,  and Sour Oranges (Naranja Agria)

 

Special corn kernels… ground to masa… pressed and sold by weight

 

 Back to the Casa and the Actual Cooking Class Begins

 img_3025Armed with our new aprons and cookbooks, we begin our lesson

Making tortillas starting with a ball of masa and a great instructor

Panuchos Y Salbutes

Bean filled tortillas with lettuce, tomato, shredded chicken and pickled onions

Out of the Garden and Into the Kitchen

img_2965Group therapy…


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Charing chile peppers

More Hands–On Fun and No Gloves Allowed

Preparing marinated chicken breasts for the Pibil
Hands-On with achiote paste and naranja agria marinade


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The assembly process; watch closely as you are doing this next

img_2981Wrapped and ready to go

    The Grand Finale… ¡Buen Provecho!

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The Menu
Crema De Cilantro (Leek and Potato Soup with cilantro)
Pit-Smoked Pollo Pibil wrapped in banana leaves
Chicken in Achiote Sauce with traditional pickled onions on the side
Flan De Chocolate Con Kahlua (David made this in advance)

img_3018Our class picture

Promotional Video

By coincidence, our class participated in the filming of a promotional marketing video which was captured by a professional crew.

http://www.los-dos.com/media/vid2.html

 

Summary

Our class prepared an amazing, totally hands-on meal from “scratch” under the ever present and encouraging David.

The outcome was a testament to his teaching skills and talents.

We walked back to our hotel with the knowledge that we done good… hold that spatula high.

 

Epilogue

And as a shock to us, recently from the Los Dos website:

It is with tremendous sadness that we report that the founder of Los Dos Cooking School, David Sterling, passed away in November. His Yucatecan cuisine cooking classes were adored by everyone who participated in them over the years, not only for the wealth of culinary knowledge he shared, but for the hands-on cooking experience accompanied by David’s dry wit and original personality. 

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But Los Dos Cooking School lives on!

No one can replace David, he was truly one-of-a-kind!  However, Los Dos continues forward under the direction of David’s faithful right-hand-man, Chef Mario Canul.

 

 

After all, what is the hurry… be inspired… get out there and enjoy life

 

© 2017 Inspired Travel Itineraries with Bob and Janice Kollar

© 2017 Picture Credits Bob & Janice Kollar

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Lost Tradition of Sending a Postcard

 

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Once upon a time, maybe only ten years ago, sending a postcard from Italy (for example) was a well thought out undertaking designed to share your experiences and to mischievously remind your friends and family that you were “here” and they were “there”.

It was a time tested ritual that has unfortunately gone out of fashion due to the advances in technology.

Is that a good thing or a bad thing?

In the “Old Days” the postcard process went something like this…..

Imagine you are strolling through a piazza in Rome and the scene before you triggers a desire to send a postcard of this view to your best friend back home in the States.

Inspired, you wander around searching for a cartoleria (paper goods store) and find one soon enough.

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You twirl the stand and ultimately select a rather commercial card, but it illustrates the image of your piazza.  You make your purchase and set out looking for a nice café to sit and write a few lines.

You order a Campari and Soda with its complimentary bowl of nuts or potato chips.

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You rummage through your backpack to find a pen that works and your little address book and write a brief note… “Having a wonderful time!  Wish you were here!”  Add your friend’s address and you are ready for the next step…. mailing the card.

After finishing your Campari, you set off to find the nearest Post Office or a Tabacchino (a small convenience store that sells candy, cigarettes and stamps).  You ask the clerk for “francoboli per la cartolina al Stati Uniti” (postage stamps for a postcard being sent to the United States) and fish out the correct coins.

After this brief exchange, you lick the stamps, find the nearest post box and say goodbye to your postcard, hoping it gets to your friend before you get back home.

Back Home… On the receiving end:

Imagine walking out to your home mailbox and there amongst all those bills and junk mail lies a hand written, hand stamped postcard!  It’s from your best friend who is in Italy!  How far it has traveled?  A treasure to behold… hmmm, looks like a stain from Campari on the back.

How cool is that?

 

Postcard Apps Changed the Process

Along with the explosion of “Smartphone” usage came applications for pretty much everything imaginable…. even postcard creating and sending apps from companies such as Postgram, Postino, Postcardly and Touchnote.  Just like the buggy whip, the old fashion postcard of yore is on its way out of fashion.

This scenario goes something like this…

Imagine you are strolling through a piazza in Rome and the scene before you triggers a desire to send a postcard of this view to your best friend back home in the States.

You take out your smartphone and snap a photo of the sight or maybe even a selfie!  You find a nice place (with Wi-Fi) to sit down and order a Compari and Soda and a small bowl of potato chips.  You fire up your smart phone and find your favorite “Postcard” application.

After several frustrating attempts at your correct password, you finally get onto the site.  You can use the photo you just took or use one from your camera roll.  Click and follow the prompts… type your message and pick the address that hopefully you have already entered on their contact list.

Click “send” and your postcard will be printed, stamped and sent from the U.S. arriving in your friend’s mailbox in a couple of days.

Back Home… On the receiving end:

Imagine walking out to your home mailbox and there amongst all those bills and junk mail lays a type written, stamped postcard!  It’s from your best friend who is in Italy… but the postmark is from the states.

How did she do that?

How cool is that?

 

Me and My Selfie

Today the “postcard” process goes something like this…merlin_selfie_stick_1

Imagine you are strolling through a piazza in Rome and the scene before you triggers a desire to send a postcard of this view to your best friend back home in the States.

But that is too much trouble and takes too long… Just snap a quick photo… a selfie for sure and post it on Facebook… you can’t wait to count how many “LIKES” you get!

How cool is that?

Back Home… On the receiving end:

“Oh, another Facebook post from what’s-her-name… she must be in Italy again… ho hum… guess I better give her an obligatory LIKE”… and on to the next post.

 Summary

In a few short years we have come so far.

The simple but elegant gift of a handwritten postcard has given way to see it, click  it, send it.

Are we going too fast?

After all, what is the hurry… be inspired… write a postcard

 

© 2016 Inspired Travel Itineraries with Bob and Janice Kollar

© 2016 Picture Credits Bob & Janice Kollar, http://www.alamy.com, http://www.itsorcestudio.com

 

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