Valladolid, Yucatan Peninsula, Mexico

Valladolid, Mexico: Two nights in a charming Spanish colonial city in the jungle of the Yucatan Peninsula in 2016. An artsy eco-hotel, lots of history, and a day trip to Rio Lagartos and Ek Balam

 

Valladolid is an often overlooked Spanish Colonial town in Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula. Most tourists spend their time in the beach towns of Cancun, Playa Del Carmen, and Tulum. While Valladolid isn’t on the beach, it has a lot to offer.  In addition to it’s Spanish colonial history and architecture, it is a prime location for touring Mayan ruins in the area. If Mayan Ruins and history are of interest to you, you might consider a few nights in Valladolid. Tours to the ruins from the coast involve hours on a bus with lots of other tourists. Chichen Itza, Ek Balam, and Coba are all very close to Valladolid and make for easy day trips. In addition to ruins, the flamingos and wildlife of Rio Lagartos are also an easy day tour away.

When we reflected on our last trip to the Yucatan, we wished that we had made more time for Valladolid. We will absolutely be back again.

Excerpt from original post Mexico 2016: Isla Holbox, Valladolid, and Tulum. Read about our full trip to the Yucatan Peninsula here

Day 1:

 

We left Isla Holbox in the early morning and had pre-arranged a private taxi from the Isla Holbox ferry to Valladolid through our hotel on Isla Holbox. Buses are possible, but would take the whole day. (It is easy to get a bus from Cancun to Valladolid, however if that is where you are coming from). The drive to Valladolid with our driver Pedro was smooth. He spoke about as much English as I spoke Spanish (un poco), but we were able to make small talk during the 2.5 hour drive. We drove through his hometown and by his family farm on the way,  and he told us about the crocodiles and jaguars in the area. It sounds like farmers may not want to leave livestock out at night.

Finally, we arrived in Valladolid, which is a tangled mess of streets all with numbers as names. Our hotel was on Calle 30, of which there were two on the map. With the help of Google Maps and my map from the hotel, Pedro and I navigated us through the busy Spanish colonial town to Hotel Zentik Project.

Valladolid street, Mexico
Narrow, colorful streets of Valladolid

Hotel Zentik Project isn’t the cheapest place to stay in Valladolid (rooms are about $110/night USD), but from what I saw in my research, it is one of the most unique.

We were greeted by Guillermo, a young hipster wearing a stylish scarf in the 85 degree heat. Guillermo provided outstanding hospitality during our stay. We were told to sit and offered a complimentary beverage (we opted for coffee and water, but tequila was also offered). Guillermo showed us around the property, which is only 8 months old. The hotel is designed to be an on-going art project, with murals going up by artists from all over the world at any given time.

Art at Hotel Zentik Project, Valladolid
Art at Hotel Zentik Project, Valladolid
Art at Hotel Zentik Project, Valladolid
Art at Hotel Zentik Project, Valladolid
Art at Hotel Zentik Project, Valladolid
Art at Hotel Zentik Project, Valladolid
Art at Hotel Zentik Project, Valladolid
Art at Hotel Zentik Project, Valladolid

There was a very inviting outdoor pool, but the prize gem of the Hotel is their underground heated saltwater cave pool.

Hotel Zentik Project outdoor pool, Valladolid
Hotel Zentik Project outdoor pool, Valladolid
Hotel-zentik-cave-valladolid-mexico
Hotel Zentik Project cave pool, Valladolid

Guillermo showed us two rooms, an upstairs one with a gorgeous bed with mosquito netting that was suspended from the ceiling by four ropes, making the bed into a swing. The other room looked similar, but with a traditional platform bed on the ground floor. While the swing bed was very pretty and unique, we weren’t so into the idea of the bed moving around, so we opted for the ground floor room.

hotel-zentik-project-valladolid-mexico (12)

Hotel Zentik Project Valladolid
Hotel Zentik Project Valladolid
Hotel Zentik Project Valladolid
Hotel Zentik Project Valladolid
Hotel Zentik Project Valladolid
Hotel Zentik Project Valladolid
Hotel Zentik Project Valladolid
Hotel Zentik Project Valladolid
Hotel Zentik Project Valladolid
Hotel Zentik Project Valladolid

The room was large with a separate sitting area and a large, firm bed. I had come down with a mild cold the night before, and  wanted to crawl right in.

We were pretty hungry and I was feeling a bit drained from my cold, so we decided to head into town for lunch and then come back and get some massages and relax. Guillermo was happy to book some massages for us at 4:00 PM at very reasonable prices–$30 USD for an hour massage and $25 USD for an hour foot massage.

We walked the mile into town and checked in with MexiGo Tours for our tour that we had booked for the next day, and then went in search of lunch and an ATM. We located a bank right in the central square, and then decided to check out Guillermo’s recommendation of the Meson del Marques hotel restaurant in the square. When we arrived at the front entrance Meson del Marques was full of tour groups and not looking very enticing. We walked back across the square and went to the El Atrio del Mayab. Guillermo said he did not recommend this restaurant but Tripadvisor’s reviews were good, so we went for it.

El Atrio del Mayab restaurant Valladolid
El Atrio del Mayab restaurant Valladolid
El Atrio del Mayab restaurant Valladolid
El Atrio del Mayab restaurant Valladolid

We were seated in a nice shady courtyard, and service was very attentive. We ordered some “Mayan margaritas” which had cucumber and chili and were very refreshing. I was in the mood for a clear brothy soup because of my cold, and the sopa de lima (lime soup–a very typical Yucatecan dish) really hit the spot. Paddy’s pork dish ended up being one of his favorite meals on our entire trip.

El Atrio del Mayab restaurant Valladolid
El Atrio del Mayab restaurant Valladolid
El Atrio del Mayab restaurant Valladolid
El Atrio del Mayab restaurant Valladolid
El Atrio del Mayab restaurant Valladolid
El Atrio del Mayab restaurant Valladolid
Sopa de lima, El Atrio del Mayab restaurant Valladolid
Sopa de lima, El Atrio del Mayab restaurant Valladolid

After lunch we admired the old Spanish colonial era cathedral in the town square, and I was able to buy some vitamin C tablets and Halls cough drops from the little farmacia in the square before heading back to the hotel. The town is very interesting and I had really wanted to spend more time exploring it and all its history, but I just wasn’t feeling so great. We had an 11 hour tour booked for the next day and I wanted to rest up.  A taxi back to the hotel from town was 30 pesos, just under $2.00 USD.

Valladolid
Valladolid — old Spanish colonial church
Valladolid
Valladolid –old church
Valladolid
Valladolid
Valladolid
Valladolid

When we got back to the hotel, we took a dip in the pool and then in the cave before our massages. Both our massages were over an hour long, and were in the spa palapa hut above the pool.

For dinner, we didn’t feel like going anywhere, and the hotel restaurant (Naino) had good reviews, so we ate there. We were told there was a band that evening as well.  The menu was international, Paddy had a steak and I had the octopus fried rice. We shared the ceviche verde for an appetizer, which was very good. It was a unique take on ceviche, with tomatillos, jalepenos, and olive oil. The octopus in my fried rice was cooked nicely, but the dish was too salty. Paddy really enjoyed his steak, but said the salt was a little heavy-handed as well.

Naino Restaurant, Hotel Zentik Valladolid
Naino Restaurant, Hotel Zentik Valladolid
Naino Restaurant, Hotel Zentik Valladolid
Ceviche verde, Naino Restaurant, Hotel Zentik Valladolid
Naino Restaurant, Hotel Zentik Valladolid
Steak, Naino Restaurant, Hotel Zentik Valladolid
Naino Restaurant, Hotel Zentik Valladolid
Octopus fried rice, Naino Restaurant, Hotel Zentik Valladolid

The “band” that was playing turned out to be a lone gentleman with a keyboard playing lounge hits. We enjoyed a couple glasses of wine, but didn’t really feel like we were missing out on much when we turned in early for the night.

Day 2:

MexiGo Tours picked us up for our full-day “Go Flamingos” tour at 6:30 AM. After gathering the other members of our tour group, we made a quick stop at the MexiGo tours office for coffee and pastries. We then drove an hour and a half to the tiny town of Rio Lagartos on the northern tip of the Yucatan Peninsula.

If you want to see flamingos in the Yucatan, Rio Lagartos is the best place to do it. The flamingos are there year round, eating and nesting. They are often seen during a part of the year in Celestun, where they go to mate. Large tour groups go to see the Celestun flamingos from Merida, as it is closer than Rio Lagartos. Not only do you avoid the big tour groups at Rio Lagartos, but the flamingos are there year round, mostly in the mornings.

Our guide Hilberto was very friendly and extremely knowledgeable. Upon arrival in Rio Lagartos we got into a small wooden boat and embarked out on the lagoon.

Rio Lagartos
Rio Lagartos
Rio Lagartos
Rio Lagartos
Rio Lagartos
Rio Lagartos

We saw flamingos almost immediately. They were a group of pink specks on the water not far from the harbor, and our driver maneuvered the boat as slowly as possible towards them so as not to disturb them. They were truly magnificent. Hilberto told us the older ones have the brightest color, and that babies are completely white when they hatch. They gain their pink color from the beta carotene in the brine shrimp that they eat.

Flamingos, Rio Lagartos
Flamingos, Rio Lagartos
Flamingos, Rio Lagartos
Flamingos, Rio Lagartos
Flamingos, Rio Lagartos
Flamingos, Rio Lagartos
Flamingos, Rio Lagartos
Flamingos, Rio Lagartos
Flamingos, Rio Lagartos
Flamingos, Rio Lagartos
Flamingos, Rio Lagartos
Flamingos, Rio Lagartos
Flamingos, Rio Lagartos
Flamingos, Rio Lagartos
Flamingos, Rio Lagartos
Flamingos, Rio Lagartos

The flamingos were truly amazing and the highlight of the tour, but we continued on in search of other wildlife. Rio Lagartos means “Alligator River,” but there are actually no alligators. There are however a lot of crocodiles. Crocodiles are usually active at night, but we were hoping to find one hiding in the mangroves.

rio lagartos mexico
Rio Lagartos

After touring peacefully through the mangroves, we finally spotted a crocodile lazily sunning himself upon a log.

He didn’t pay us much mind, and after admiring him for a few minutes our guide tried to toss him a fish. It smacked him right in the eyes, making him blink and then open his mouth. It was hard to tell if he was inviting another fish toss, or showing us his teeth as a warning. Hilberto handed another fish to one of our fellow tour mates, and unfortunately the second fish missed his mouth and hit him smack in the eyes again. He blinked the fish scales out of his eyes and opened his mouth a little wider. He made no attempt to get the fish floating in front of him, and it seemed that he was making it pretty clear that we were a nuisance and should leave him be.

Crocodile at Rio Lagartos
Crocodile at Rio Lagartos
Crocodile at Rio Lagartos
Crocodile at Rio Lagartos
Crocodile at Rio Lagartos
Crocodile at Rio Lagartos
Crocodile at Rio Lagartos
Crocodile at Rio Lagartos
Crocodile at Rio Lagartos
Crocodile at Rio Lagartos

We left the poor crocodile be, and continued our tour spotting various birds such as herons and black hawks and pelicans. The pelicans took quick notice of the small bucket of fish our guide had in the boat for the crocodiles, and eagerly followed us along until our guide began tossing the fish to them. They would fly alongside the boat until they were almost ahead of us, then sit in the water and open their mouths hoping for fish, and then repeat. They were pretty entertaining. Their diligence paid off, and a fish lunch was had.

black hawk Rio Lagartos
black hawk Rio Lagartos
Pelicans, Rio Lagartos
Pelicans, Rio Lagartos
Pelicans, Rio Lagartos
Pelicans, Rio Lagartos
Pelicans, Rio Lagartos
Pelicans, Rio Lagartos
Pelicans, Rio Lagartos
Pelicans, Rio Lagartos
Pelicans, Rio Lagartos
Pelicans, Rio Lagartos

We came to a land bank of white clay, where we were invited to take a “Mayan bath,” rubbing the clay on our skin. The clay reportedly absorbs out impurities and leaves you looking younger. The young Scottish couple decided to partake, but all I could think of was how much sunscreen I would have to reapply afterwards, and we opted out. If this was the last stop of the day, we may have went for it, but the day was only part way over.

mayan bath rio lagartos
“Mayan bath”
mayan bath rio lagartos
“Mayan bath”

After our Scottish friends finished their Mayan bath, we bid the flamingos, pelicans, and crocodiles adieu and went back to the harbor to have lunch before heading on to the second half of our tour, the Mayan ruins of Ek Balam.

Ek Balam means “Black Jaguar” in Mayan, and the ancient Mayan city is one of the more recent excavations in the area by archeologists. It is also one of the lesser visited ruins, but  I would recommend not missing Ek Balam. There are more excavations in the works, and there is a lot of the city that has not yet been uncovered. Of what has been uncovered, the most stunning attraction here are the intricate carvings on the main pyramid that are still mostly intact. It is mind blowing how intact they are after thousands of years.

Ek Balam Mayan ruins--main pyramid
Ek Balam Mayan ruins–main pyramid
Ek Balam Mayan ruins--main pyramid
Ek Balam Mayan ruins–main pyramid,
Ek Balam Mayan ruins--main pyramid
Ek Balam Mayan ruins–main pyramid
Ek Balam Mayan ruins--main pyramid
Ek Balam Mayan ruins–main pyramid
Ek Balam Mayan ruins--main pyramid
Ek Balam Mayan ruins–main pyramid

Our guide Hilberto was very knowledgeable about the ruins, and gave us a rough tour of the site and the main pyramid before setting us free to explore on our own. I wanted to climb to the top of the main pyramid, but it was hot and windy, there are no hand rails and the steps are narrow. Both of us were a bit too freaked out just going halfway up to look at the carvings and statues, and we decided to play it safe and descend back to the ground. I just had too many visions of a gust of wind knocking my hot, lightheaded self backwards down the pyramid. I’m sure it’s a great view though.

Hilberto told us a lot about what is known about ancient Mayan society: The hierarchy of the royals, how they learned to predict weather and their obsession with time (hence the infamous Mayan calendar), their worship of numerous gods and the sporting games where the winners are sacrificed to the gods in hopes of bountiful crops. Every Mayan city did things a little differently, and it was all extremely fascinating.

Descending the pyramid steps at Ek Balam
Descending the pyramid steps at Ek Balam

It was really hot and Paddy and I were losing steam. We walked around some of the structures we hadn’t seen yet and then went back to the main entrance to get some bottled water and wait for the rest of the group.

Ek Balam Mayan ruins
Ek Balam Mayan ruins
Ek Balam Mayan ruins
Ek Balam Mayan ruins
Ek Balam Mayan ruins
Ek Balam Mayan ruins
Ek Balam Mayan ruins
Ek Balam Mayan ruins
Ek Balam Mayan ruins
Ek Balam Mayan ruins
Ek Balam Mayan ruins
Ek Balam Mayan ruins
Ek Balam Mayan ruins
Ek Balam Mayan ruins

The last stop on our tour was the Destileria Mayapan tequila distillery outside Valladolid on the way back. For a small fee, we were able to go in and see the production area where they smoke and juice the blue agave “pineapples” (the heart and root of the blue agave plant with the leaves hacked off—it looks like a giant pineapple) to make the tequila. We were given a taste of the various types of tequila: Blanco (or silver—not aged), reposado (“rested” tequila, aged in oak barrels two months to a year, giving it a more complex flavor and a darker color from the oak), Añejo (aged 1-3 years), and extra añejo (aged over three years).

Of the Mayapan tequila, we liked the reposado the best. I didn’t really like the extra añejo, it was really oaky. The blanco tequila is the cheapest, and the kind you use for margaritas, while the older ones are more for sipping. We like the extra flavor or the reposados in margaritas, but it’s a matter of personal taste.

Destileria Mayapan tequila distillery, Valladolid
Destileria Mayapan tequila distillery, Valladolid
Destileria Mayapan tequila distillery, Valladolid
Destileria Mayapan tequila distillery, Valladolid
Agave fields at Destileria Mayapan tequila distillery, Valladolid
Agave fields at Destileria Mayapan tequila distillery, Valladolid
Destileria Mayapan tequila distillery, Valladolid
Destileria Mayapan tequila distillery, Valladolid
Destileria Mayapan tequila distillery, Valladolid
Destileria Mayapan tequila distillery, Valladolid
Destileria Mayapan tequila distillery, Valladolid
Destileria Mayapan tequila distillery, Valladolid
Destileria Mayapan tequila distillery, Valladolid
Destileria Mayapan tequila distillery, Valladolid
Destileria Mayapan tequila distillery, Valladolid
Destileria Mayapan tequila distillery, Valladolid
Destileria Mayapan tequila distillery, Valladolid
Destileria Mayapan tequila distillery, Valladolid
Destileria Mayapan tequila distillery, Valladolid
Harvested blue agave “pineapples” at Destileria Mayapan tequila distillery, Valladolid
Destileria Mayapan tequila distillery, Valladolid
Destileria Mayapan tequila distillery, Valladolid
Destileria Mayapan tequila distillery, Valladolid
Destileria Mayapan tequila distillery, Valladolid

We concluded our long day and thanked Hilberto for a great tour. I would highly recommend MexiGo Tours in Valladolid. Their small group tours are a great way of seeing the sites if you don’t have a car, and the guides are very knowledgeable.

When we got back to the hotel, I was so hot from walking around the ruins that I jumped right into the pool. It was so refreshing.

For dinner we wanted to go to a restaurant we read about on Tripadvisor called Canato, which Guillermo also recommended but when we told him where we were going he told us that Tuesdays are the days they are closed. Bummer. We asked for his recommendation for good local place with typical Mexican food from the region. He said that most Mexicans get tortas, tacos, etc from loncherias and trucks during the day for lunch, but at night they cook at home. If they do decide to go out, they want something different like pasta (which explains the plethora of Italian restaurants we saw in Mexico). He recommended a touristy place with good traditional dishes called La Taberna de Los Frailes.

La Taberna de los Frailes (the tavern of the friars) is a touristy restaurant near the Convento de San Bernardino de Siena, an old Spanish colonial monastery and convent built in 1560. The prices were reasonable and the food was very regional. We started with some empanadas, and then I had the Pavo en Relleno Negro, which was turkey breast stuffed with a hard-boiled egg in a spicy black sauce. Paddy had the Longaniza Sisal, which was local sausage and beans with a tomato sauce. For dessert we had the flan. Everything was great, and a style of Mexican food we hadn’t had before.

La Taberna del los Frailes
La Taberna del los Frailes
La Taberna del los Frailes
Pavo en relleno negro, La Taberna del los Frailes
La Taberna del los Frailes
Longaniza Sisal, La Taberna del los Frailes
La Taberna del los Frailes
Flan, La Taberna del los Frailes

There was a light show going on at the old Convent at 8:00, but we missed it. It was still pretty all illuminated for the evening.

Convento de San Bernardino de Siena, Valladolid
Convento de San Bernardino de Siena, Valladolid

We were pretty exhausted from our long day at Rio Lagartos and Ek Balam, so we grabbed a taxi back to the hotel and called it a night. I took a relaxing dip in the cave pool before bed.

 

In the morning we were able to enjoy the complimentary breakfast at Hotel Zentik Project, which included a variety of made-to-order options such as enchiladas, chilaquiles, and huevos rancheros. The Mexican coffee with a cinnamon infusion was delicious.

Valladolid was one of the highlights of our trip to Mexico, and in retrospect we wished we would have done one more night in Valladolid and one less night in Tulum to give us more time to explore the city. If you are interested in Mayan history and a more authentic Yucatecan experience, don’t miss Valladolid.

Tips for Your First Time Traveling Abroad

Tips for your first time traveling abroad: how to be safe, smart, and prepared. Most importantly, have fun and don’t be afraid to try something new.

 

1. Don’t be scared

Traveling to another country for the first time is intimidating for anyone, but don’t let your fear hold you back. Think about how many people travel all over the world every single day and have a great experience. No travel experience is guaranteed to be perfect, but being smart and informed as well as open-minded is the best recipe for a great first time traveling abroad. Don’t be afraid to try new things.

tips for first time traveling abroad
You don’t have to eat a scorpion on a stick, but don’t be afraid to try something new

2. Read something about the place you are going before you go.

To many this is probably a no-brainer, but a lot of people just want to “show up and go where the wind blows them.” While this ideal notion of a spontaneous adventure may sound great, the reality can be very different and even dangerous. Pick up a guidebook, and read the general information about getting to your destination, getting around, customs and etiquette of the country you are going to, and basic advice on health, food, common tourist cons, and dangerous animals and insects. Make sure you know what gestures or behavior is considered rude at your destination and act accordingly.

Check up on current events in the country or city you are headed to. Find out if there are political protests, civil unrest, travel advisories, etc. Find out which neighborhoods are unsafe and be sure to avoid them. When we went to Thailand there were protests going on in Bangkok that included some grenades and gunfire on occasion. We followed the stories closely on the Bangkok Post and on Tripadvisor forums a few months before our trip, learned where the protest zones were and what areas to avoid, and we had no issues. Right before we went there was a story online in an Australian newspaper, where an Australian woman was interviewed in Bangkok. She was completely appalled that the Australian government had not warned her about the protests and that she had wandered into an area where people had been killed in a grenade blast the night before and she had no idea that was going on. “There should be signs at the airport,” she said. “Our government should have warned us.” Don’t be that lady. Take some responsibility and read the international news. The internet is a big place with a lot of news resources

3. Apply for your passport a minimum of 6 months before your travel dates, make sure you sign it

Passports take a month or so minimum to obtain, possibly longer if there is a back up in applications. To be safe, don’t wait any longer than 6 months before your trip to apply for one. They are good for 10 years, so applying a bit early isn’t going to make much of a difference. If you wear glasses, take them off for your passport photo, and be sure to sign your passport when you get it.

If you or anyone in your party already has a passport, check to make sure it expires more than 6 months after you plan on returning. Many countries will turn you away at the border if your passport expires within six months of your trip.

4. If a Visa is required for the country you are visiting, apply well in advance

If you are American or Western European, there is a pretty wide range of countries that don’t require visa applications to visit. However, it is always best to check as soon as you start planning your trip to find out. Americans can visit the State Department website for more info on specific countries.

5. Let your bank know where you are going and when

Do not forget to let your bank and credit card companies know that you are traveling out of the country. Call the numbers on the backs of your cards and tell them you would like to give them a travel notification. They will ask for the dates and for all countries you expect to be in during your trip. If you don’t warn your bank ahead of time, you may find your card(s) declined until you call them.

6. When visiting a city, map out the places you want to see and then look for a hotel close by.

Figure out what you want to see the most, and where the nightlife you are interested in is. Being able to walk places at your leisure instead of relying on public transportation is always nice. If you plan on going out drinking at night, you might consider getting a hotel close to the area you think you are going to be going. Public transportation is easier to come by during the day (and cheaper), and being able to walk back to your hotel tipsy at 2:00 AM instead of paying for an expensive cab ride is always a plus.

tips for first time traveling abroad
You can pretty much walk everywhere in town on Isla Mujeres, Mexico

7. Use an RFID money belt or cross-shoulder purse, and use ATMS in banks if possible.

Keep your money hidden under your clothes with a money belt, and if you carry a purse make it small and able to be worn diagonal and not vertical over your shoulder. This will make it a lot more difficult to be snatched or pick pocketed. Use common sense and don’t flash any large wads of cash around.

The best way to get foreign currency is from an ATM (traveler’s checks are a thing of the past). Tell your bank and credit card company about your travel plans prior to leaving the country so that they don’t block your purchases and withdraws. In many countries, it is wise to withdraw cash from an ATM in a bank (preferably during banking hours so that you can get assistance if it eats your card) and pay cash wherever you go instead of using a debit card. Credit card fraud is extremely common in many places, and the poorer the country, the more cautious you should be.

If you need cash and a bank ATM isn’t available, look for ones that are part of the wall of a building and not a stand-alone. We’ve heard of instances of fake ATMs eating your card or stealing your card information and then telling you the ATM is out of order.

8. Take a copy of your passport and a secondary ID with you, packed separately from your passport

It’s a common notion to keep all your important papers and documents in one place, but you’ll want to keep a xerox copy of your passport in a separate place than your actual passport. It’s a good idea to keep your driver’s license or another form of ID along with it separate from your passport and money as well. If your purse or passport is stolen, it will be helpful to have a passport copy and extra identification to obtain a replacement from the nearest US Embassy.

It is also a good idea to have your credit card numbers and bank phone numbers written down somewhere separate as well, so that you can quickly call and cancel your cards if they are also stolen.

 

9. Avoid the tour buses if possible.

Yes, it’s easy to do a pre-packaged tour. In some places, it might be your best option. If it involves 40 other tourists from resorts in a huge tour bus though, try to avoid it. We managed to avoid a tour and take a shuttle to Chichen Itza in Mexico and it ended up being a fabulous trip. We got a photo of the pyramid with no one in it. Don’t be afraid to find your own transportation and see it on your own schedule. If it’s a big tourist attraction, get up early and get there when they open. The tour buses and crowds always start flowing in around 10:00 or 11:00, and if you can get most of the sightseeing done and move on to a less touristy location by then–bonus.

tips-for-first-time-traveling-abroad
Chichen Itza before the tour bus crowds hit. So worth getting up early for.

10. Don’t spend all your time in resorts.

Resorts are always enticing–huge beautiful swimming pools, beaches, fancy rooms and foo-foo cocktails. However, if you spend all your time at a resort you’ll miss out on a lot. We’ve stayed at a few and we always get annoyed with the fake, pre-packaged tourist show put on by the resort employees, and annoyed with our fellow resort patrons who are often rude to the staff and self-important. When we look back at all our trips, some of the best experiences were the mom-and-pop hotels and bungalows we stayed at where we met some locals or like-minded travelers and learned more about the culture and community.

Thai street food
Paddy wouldn’t miss out on the Thai street food for all the swim-up bars in the world…

11. Read reviews on www.tripadvisor.com before you book.

That fabulous deal on that hotel on Expedia? There’s often a reason it’s so cheap. Tripadvisor is a great way to read about other people’s experiences at a hotel or restaurant. You can tell when someone is being uppity (“there was a stain in the corner of the curtain”) vs. reporting a legitimate issue (“bedbugs!”). It’s also a good way to find out more information about the location of the hotel and what is nearby. We booked our resort in Bora Bora based on it’s walking distance to a convenience store and local restaurants to help us save money on food while we were there, and we learned all of that information by reading reviews. We’ve also discovered some really cool small hotels on Tripadvisor that we wouldn’t have seen as options on travel booking sites.

Another great thing about Tripadvisor is it’s forums. Ask a question and get answers from fellow travelers who have been there. Read other people’s questions and see answers. We’ve received a lot of good advice from fellow travelers on these forums and it really helped a lot with our planning. When you get back, post your reviews and photos and tell everyone what you thought about where you stayed.

tips for first time traveling abroad
Awesome B&B we stayed at in the Aran Islands, Ireland. Thanks TripAdvisor!

12. Check with your cell phone carrier about using your phone outside of the country

More and more cell phone carriers will allow you to use your phone in certain countries outside the US. Some will allow you to turn on an international calling plan with unlimited data and texting in certain countries, with an extra fee per minute for phone calls. Always check with your carrier before traveling, you don’t want to end up with crazy cell phone bills when you get home.

If your carrier doesn’t have an economical international option for your phone, you can always put it in airplane mode and use hotel wifi to communicate back home.

13. If you have medications, be sure you have enough to cover your trip and a little extra. Take copies of your prescriptions from the doctor.

Some countries/customs officials may be strict about certain medications being brought into a country. To be on the safe side, take your prescriptions in the original prescription bottles with your name on them and get a copy of your prescription list from your doctor’s office. Always bring more than you think you might need in case your flight home gets delayed, but don’t bring too much more or they might think you’re trying to sell it. I have a couple common prescription drugs that I travel with, and I’ve never had a problem. It’s always best to be prepared for questions though.

14. Pack comfortable shoes suitable for the climate.

Bad shoes will absolutely ruin any trip. If you are able to walk a lot, then you will be doing some major walking. The best way to see sights is on foot. Make sure to bring comfortable shoes with good support. If you are going to a tropical climate, you may want to invest in some athletic water sandals that are good for hiking or water use. If you are traveling to Iceland or planning on being outdoors in a cold, rainy climate, waterproof hiking boots are a life-saver.

Personally, I gave up on high heels and uncomfortable shoes in my 20s. Now I’m all about quality, not quantity. I’ve found that with shoes, you get what you pay for. It’s worth the extra money to be comfortable and ready for any adventure.

what to pack for a trip to Iceland in the winter
Waterproof boots are essential for a trip to Iceland. At Reynisfjara Black Sand Beach

15. Be an eco-conscious traveler.

Recycle whenever possible, and take all your trash with you when you leave a beach, park, or other destination. Don’t patronize restaurants that serve shark fin soup (more about this here). If going somewhere where animals are part of the attraction (such as riding elephants or whale watching), read up on companies and choose the ones that treat the animals well. Patronize tour companies that give wild animals their space and don’t encourage feeding them. Leave a small footprint, and don’t buy souvenirs consisting of animal parts such as ivory, shark jaws, or fur.

tips for first time traveling abroad
http://icewhale.is

16. Pack light.

Yes, much easier said than done. I’ve kicked myself for not following this rule a few times. It’s always more difficult with cooler climates as well, because clothes are bulkier and take up more space. Take everything you think you need and then put half of it back. Tide makes great little travel-size packets of laundry detergent that are made for doing laundry in a hotel sink and we’ve used them quite a few times. Going for two weeks? Take one week’s worth of clothes and plan on doing some laundry when you get a hotel stay that is two nights or more. Trust us, it sucks lugging around a bunch of stuff and keeping track of it. If you can fit everything you are taking with you into a hiking backpack with some extra room for souvenirs to take home–you’ve done it right.

tips-for-first-time-traveling-abroad
Lugging around a bunch of luggage isn’t fun. You probably won’t even need as much as you think you will.

17. Learn how to say “Hello” and “Thank you” in the language of the country you are visiting.

No one expects you to speak Swedish or Thai, but learning these basic  courtesies in the language of the country you are going to will win you brownie points with the locals. It is also often polite to ask “Do you speak English?” to a stranger before you start rambling off your questions. If you’re going to a country with a more common language such as Spanish or French, try to learn a few more basic phrases. If you know some of the language, use it. Even if you’re embarrassed about your pronunciation or grammar, locals will appreciate the fact that you are trying (except for people in Paris, but I digress….).

18. Don’t be the guy with no shirt on in a restaurant.

You don’t need a sign that says “no shirt, no shoes, no service” to tell you that this is rude in most places. While in Thailand, a country that dresses fairly conservatively and tank tops are uncommon among locals, we visited a restaurant on the side of the highway for lunch. There we saw a fat European tourist in tiny short shorts, with no shirt on and his huge belly hanging over his waistband which looked like it was about to burst. The icing on the cake: black socks with sandals accompanied his outfit. Don’t be that guy. Just don’t.

 

With a little preparation and research, your first time traveling abroad should be a fun and exciting experience. Keep an open mind, and remember that you are a guest in the country you are traveling to. Don’t be afraid to venture out and learn about the world. I guarantee you won’t regret it.