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Oct 13, 2020

Dude ranches in California, visiting with kids and advanced riders

With the pandemic happening this year, we have had to cancel our big oversea trips. While we were all quite disappointed it, we ended up coming up with other ideas to getaway. With our daughter being so interested in riding, we found out early in the summer that visiting dude ranches was a good way to get out while staying safe (being on a horse all day guarantees social distancing in the outdoors). As it turns out, we were able to fill in some summer weekends to visiting dude ranches and we have had the chance to visit 3 (soon to be 4) ranches over the course of this year. Below is what we learned about dude ranches.

First, they are all amazing in their own way and we met people who had been coming to these ranches for years and have enjoyed every minute of it. If you like horses and the outdoors you can't go wrong with any of these. All of these ranches offer daily rides (usually morning and afternoons) for different levels. Once or twice a week the ride goes to a creek or nice area in nature for BBQ lunch or dinner. A nice way to participate in a longer trail ride and enjoy nature.

This is my daughter's favorite; she came to the ranch for horseback riding and she was not disappointed. Long rides mornings and afternoons, beautiful scenery. She thought that the advanced rides were interesting and exciting. I took the beginner rides and thought they were nice, but didn't offer as much variety. I guess that you get access to more trails with a higher level.

Besides riding, Greenhorn ranch offers plenty of other activities. They have a dedicated staff member for non-riding activities and they offer skeet shooting, archery, mountain biking, etc... (although most activities are for 12+ years old). The ranch itself has a pool, a pond for fishing, lawn games, a kids teepee with games and stuffed animals and a gold panning area, which turned out to become my 7-year old's favorite activity of all. They also have a little playground outside of the main lawn.

The ranch typically offers an evening program, which includes karaoke, line dancing, stories by the fireplace, etc... but they had to cancel this year for safety reasons.

Accommodations are nice and food was good.

This is my 7 year old's favorite and it's easy to know why. They teach trotting and loping (cantering) to the beginner group on day 2 and he loved being able to canter in the meadows! The horses are very well trained and you get to ride - and feed- the same horse throughout your stay so you really get to know your horse. We also got to participate in a cattle ride, which was a big highlight for the kids as well.
Hunewill offers stays for specific dates only and all the guests arrive and leave at the same time. This allows for the same riding progression throughout the week, and for guests to enjoy introductions at the same time. That said, this also adds more constraints to trip planning.

The scenery of wide plains surrounded by beautiful mountains is exceptional and I really enjoyed the views there.

The ranch doesn't offer many activities outside of riding, although there is a small playground, lawn games and a fun evening program (talent show, bingo, etc...) when all the riding is done.

Accommodations are nice and food was good.

This is my favorite when I think of the scenery and the overall experience. I personally enjoyed the riding because the surroundings are beautiful (plains and beautiful hills) and the trails offer a variety of experiences and viewpoints. The rides are short (1 hour max) and you can not trot or lope in the afternoon rides because the horses are tired (they do multiple rides with multiple riders throughout the day). For my advanced daughter, it felt like the riding experience was too limited.

But Rankin Ranch makes up for the limited riding with a fantastic overall experience.When not riding, kids have many options to be busy: a farm/petting zoo, pool, lawn games, creek. There is a kids program with counselors dedicated to the kids most of the summer. This was a big plus for the kids.
The evening program was also fun, with games and prizes offered every night.

One thing to note for busy people is that the wifi is limited to 2 hours/day (3-5pm) and only by the office. While I understand the benefit of reconnecting with nature, it seems quite limited especially when the time spent riding is so short.

Accommodations are very comfortable (although spread out over a large area) and food was truly amazing.

If you have riders in your family and are considering visiting a Dude Ranch, I hope you will find these tips useful.

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Jan 17, 2020

Central America top picks

I was recently talking to a friend about places to go in Central America, one of our favorite regions to visit. She was primarily interested in Costa Rica, which is a wonderful place, no doubt. But as I was about to write to her, I decided to do a round up of our trips in Central America. You can't go wrong with any of these destinations. They are all wonderful in their own ways, but below are our favorites to date.

1. Roatan
I think the big gem of Latin America is Roatan (island in Honduras). We had the best time there: great beach, warm water, amazing snorkeling, jungle access. Flight there was convenient and affordable (red eye through El Salvador). I can’t think of any Con at this point. We are hoping to go back to Roatan later this year (which is very unusual for us to go to the same place twice, so this says something!)

Even during the rainy season, this was a highlight for us. Tortuguero is Wow! Amazing! Great jungle; turtles (at the right time of year). 
When we went there, we added 2 days in the South East part of Costa Rica (beach is OK; we visited a cute rescue center; which they now have across the country). We also went to Monteverde Cloud Forest, where you can walk in the tall bridges in the middle of the rainforest. It was not my favorite though.

All these regions are somewhat easy to reach from San Jose (a few hours drive). To go to Tortuguero, you have to drive all the way to the dock (via bumpy road) and then take the boat. It’s an adventure in itself.

A great mix of sea shore with great snorkeling and diving, jungle and history (Tikal). Despite the travel involved from the coast to Tikal and back it felt like one of the most relaxing vacations we had.

While we didn't stay in Panama very long - and we know there is a lot more to explore, we had a great time exploring the sea shore and adventuring in the jungle. We also enjoyed visiting Panama City and the very famous canal, which made for a one-of-a-kind trip.

This region offers a great mix of history, cenotes (caves to swim in), sea shore and amazing food. When you can avoiid the crowds, it's amazing. However, the most popular attraction can be pretty packed.

Pros: Nature; Wild life; Weather. The Osa Peninsula is beautiful and still very much untapped. You can find a mix of activities, beetween the jungle and the sea side.

Cons: Travel (no direct flight from SFO; connections are not great. Once you are in San Jose, there is still some driving involved to go to the good destinations). Beaches are not always great for swimming (I think there are some great beaches, though, but not the ones we went to. If you go to the places with great nature, the beach might not be the best).

Again, you can't go wrong with any of these destinations. As we visit more areas in Central America, we will add to the list. Will the ranking change?

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Jan 5, 2020

Back from Costa Rica, Part II

After a 7-year break, we went back to Costa Rica during the holiday season and we had a wonderful time. After visiting the Caribbean side in 2012, we decided to try the Pacific coast this time, more precisely the less travelled Osa Peninsula. 

We wanted to visit Corcovado which I believe is the biggest and least visited National Park. There are 2 ways to get into the park itself: from Carate in the South (walking 3 miles into it) or from Drake Bay (via boat). We ended splitting and staying at both ends: Luna Lodge in the South and Pirate Cove at Drake Bay. 

The logistics of the overall trip was tricky. It’s 6-ish hours drive from San Jose to Carate. On the way there (post red eye), we stopped at Ballena Beach for a night. Ballena Beach is on a lot of guide books, although I personally didn't feel it was worth a stop. But we thought we would need a break by then, so it was as good a place to spend the night as any other. Unfortunately, given the short time we had at Ballena beach, we couldn't even see the famous view and visit the tide pools as low tide didn't align with our schedule. In hindsight, we could have avoided it all and looked into flying through Panama (there is a convenient red eye from Copa to Panama City + morning flight to David; then I think it’s only a few hours drive to Carate.)

Once in Carate though, it was all worth it. The hotel is in the middle of the jungle and we felt that we had been away from busy life for a long time, from the minute we arrived. We enjoyed a variety of activities, from a wildlife safari to horseback riding on the beach, to the occasional swim in the pool, to looking for baby sea turtles hatching from their nests at night (so cute, although the experience was quite eerie). The hotel also offers yoga on a beautiful platform above the trees, although we were too busy to participate. 

The highlight was visiting Corcovado from Carate, which involves a really nice - but long- hike and several wildlife encounters. The most memorable one was monkeys chasing after us because our 6-year old was carrying fresh pieces of coconut and the monkeys thought they would just steal them from him.

Corcovado National Park

After this wonderful stay in Carate, we had to track back on our steps to go to Drake Bay (driving via Puerto Jimenez) as the 2 places don’t connect through the park. It was a long drive on bumpy roads.  We took advantage of our stop at Puerto Jimenez to take a boat tour in the Golfo Dulce. Keyword there was dolphins! We saw so many dolphins up close. This was fascinating even for us who had recently been in Hawaii and had seen dolphins already. We also got to visit a rescue center (there are a lot of them now in Costa Rica), which was very nice for the kids as well.

Some of the many dolphins we saw in Golfo Dulce

Once we arrived in Drake Bay, our focus shifted to water activities. We could also have reached Corcovado from Drake Bay (which involves a boat trip), but we ended up not going back. We chose to go snorkeling to Cano Island itself (not great; it wasn’t worth it). We also enjoyed a nice mangrove tour where we saw sloths, and some more relaxing time by the pool.

The Beach by Pirate Cove Hotel

View from Pirate Cove Hotel

Quickly our week was over, and we headed back to San Jose via the crocodile bridge. It's a location where crocodiles love to hang out. It was fun to see these crocodiles although the bridge and its surroundings were quite crowded.

It was overall a good trip and we loved the places where we stayed. But if we had to do it again, we probably would have tried to minimize our time driving. We would have just stayed at Drake Bay, taken the boat to Corcovado and stayed inside the park at Sirena for 1-2 nights. It’s supposed to be a basic lodge, but in the middle of the most beautiful jungle for sure.
That said, if you don’t mind the drive, Luna Lodge is amazing; it’s just very remote in the jungle (which comes with pros and cons).

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Dec 23, 2018

Panama Getaway. Recommending Bocas Del Toro

Over the last few years, we have been lucky for the kids to have the week of Thanksgiving off and we have taken advantage of the break to go to a warm place as temperatures cool down in California. We often leave at the beginning of that week, returning on Thanksgiving day, when fares are cheaper.
After a few years visiting Hawaii, we found out that going to Central America is a great idea. Flights are convenient (red eyes), time differences are 1 or 2 hours max, and the ocean temperature on the Caribbean side is much warmer.
After a successful trip to Roatan, Honduras in 2017, we decided to try Panama in 2018.

We picked a nice hotel, Red Frog Beach resort, on a small island in the Bocas del Toro province. We had picked this region for the weather, the combination of jungle in the island and proximity to the ocean for snorkeling and diving, and the promise of a nice little fishing village. We were not disappointed. 

The resort was nice, with individual villas and bungalows, a nice accessible beach, a central pool and an excellent restaurant. The kids found a lot of activities just at our front door. The hotel also helped us organize a ziplining tour on the island (which was quite nerve-wracking; there was some steep climbing involved and I stressed out a lot for our 5-year old; although he did brilliantly).

5-year old ziplining; he wasn't as scared as I was!

The beach in front of our villa

Outside of the resort, we had easy access to diving trips (dive shops from the main city could come and pick us up at the resort). We also went on a day tour to visit a bat cave at the end of a cool mangrove forest. It was a dark tunnel with an underground river and bats hanging on the ceiling. A real-life Halloween experience, and quite an adventure. 

Coming back from the bat cave

We also enjoyed a one-day boat tour where we saw dolphins and visited the famous Starfish beach (Guess what it is famous for?).

The one drawback of picking Bocas Del Toro as a destination is the transfer from Panama City. We looked into direct flights to the Bocas Del Toro airport; however we read very discouraging reviews about the only airline that serviced this destination. We didn't want to jeopardize our quick trip by having unexpected flight delays. So we ended up deciding to fly to David inland (reliable and comfortable) and take a van + boat to the hotel. While it was a longer route, it allowed us to appreciate the geography of Panama and the mountain range that separates the Pacific from the Caribbean side. We got to see life in rural Panama. And we enjoyed the nice long boat ride from Almirante.

Before our return home, we spent one day doing a tour of Panama City. While it was short, it was a big highlight for us. We started with a tour of the canal in a small motor boat. It was impressive to hang out next to the big boats. We also found out that the canal is still home to a lot of jungle wildlife in the many islands in the bay leading to the canal. This was a real treat! We also got to visit the bridge that separates North from South America (great geography lesson for the kids) and the old neighborhood of Panama City, with all its history and local culture. It was a packed but exciting day, before we relaxed and fell asleep in the red eye back home.

In a small boat in front of the big boat

Feeding monkeys in the Panama Canal

We would definitely recommend visiting Panama in your next adventure.

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Nov 18, 2017

Roatan - the best hidden Gem in Central America

We had the most wonderful trip in Roatan. In the last few years, we had spent Thanksgiving in Hawaii and we enjoyed the quick getaway to warmer weather and beach. However, this year, we decided to try something new after researching the best beaches to be in Central America. The reviews were correct and we were not disappointed.
We had the best time there: great beach, warm water, amazing snorkeling, jungle access. Flight there was convenient and affordable (red eye through El Salvador). You leave home one evening on a cold rainy night and by mid-morning the next day, you are in paradise. So convenient!

We stayed at the Grand Roatan Resort, which was very convenient for snorkeling. We went to a natural park closeby for a day, where we hung out with parrots, monkeys and enjoyed a nice and beautiful ziplining tour. For another afternoon, we went to a rescue center on the other side of the island where we hung out with sloths. It was a good opportunity to see the rest of the island and we found out that the locals put a big deal of emphasis on Black Friday, which was going to take place a few days later.

For most of the time though, we stayed close to the hotel and we went snorkeling or enjoyed the pool. There was so much to see right at our fingertips and the water was sooooo warm (big contrast to Hawaii). The snorkeling just in front of the hotel was amazing; the 4-year old didn't even have to swim a bit! The bigger kids got their bubblemaker certificates  right off the shore from our hotel. (first step for diving, when you are too young to get your official diving license). 

Hotel pool

Ocean in front of the hotel

Who doesn't like hanging out with sloths?

Zip Lining in the jungle

On the way back, we had a long layover in San Salvador and we did a day tour to see some old settlements and enjoy the local specialty (pupusas). It was also a lot of fun. Now we just have to go to Panama and Nicaragua and we will have visited all countries in South America. I am sure we will come back soon. We love it here!

Old settlements by San Salvador


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