Travel/Trip Planning

Planning a Trip? Start with a Travel Guide

OK, I know we’ve slacked off on our blog posting duties.  School has begun and between my studies and Rae’s kids back in school, well, we’ve been busy.  But here you.  Our latest post by Rae.

Have you ever seen a place on TV or heard a friend talking about their amazing trip and thought “I’ve got to go there someday”?  Then you sit down to plan your trip and become completely overwhelmed.  Where should I stay, where should I eat, what should I see, what should I do, is this place really all that interesting, is it appropriate for my family, . . .AUGH!!!  Ok, take a deep breath, relax, and take it one step at a time.  My first step is research, and for that I turn to travel guides. They simplify the planning and in the process get me really excited about my trip.

Here is a rundown of the travel guides I use. I always try to reference several guides on a location as each offers a different perspective.


Rick Steves

Audience – Educated audiences looking for a cultural experience


  • Suggested Itineraries to help you know where to start
  • Includes maps, both street maps and sketch maps of the mentioned sights so you can get the lay of the land and see where things are in relation to each other.
  • Rates the worthiness of attractions
  • Thorough information that is personally researched
  • Cultural insights throughout
  • Section of recommended books and films
  • Lots of useful practicalities including on the ground tips for saving time and money
  • Insight features with in depth cultural and historical information


  • Only covers Europe
  • Sparse on pictures
  • Their popularity causes what my husband calls “The Rick Steves Effect” where the out-of-the way places he recommends then become populated with American tourists

Comments – Rick is my all-time favorite guide series. He matches my interests and travel style.



Audience – Middle class North Americans that stay strictly on the beaten tourist path


  • “Best Of lists” giving you the top experiences, restaurants, museums, etc.
  • Suggested itineraries to help you know where to start
  • Ratings for the sights so you know what is worth the time
  • Tags for the special finds and kid friendly sights
  • Solid information with an easy format


  • No pictures
  • Few cultural insight side bars
  • Keeps you solidly on the tourist path of “popular” attractions

Comments – I always use Frommer’s as a starting point for my itinerary and for the solid info.


Eyewitness Travel


Audience – People who are visual


  • Nice color pictures throughout. They really help you see what a sight is
  • Good features on the food of a locale and sometimes on shopping or entertainment
  • Nice maps
  • Good diagrams of the top sights
  • The “Traveler’s Needs” section at the back is useful


  • Except for the top sights, everything is given equal weight leaving you to guess if it is worth the time or not
  • The information on sights is not very interesting or thorough

Comments – I always consult these for the food feature and for the fun of looking at the pictures to get a good visual. I’m always more excited about a trip after looking at these.


National Geographic Traveler

Audience – Travelers interested in culture, nature and authentic experiences


  • Beautiful photography and lots of it
  • Many in-depth features on culture and history (once I read all the features in the Vietnam book and I’m not even planning a trip there)
  • Suggested experiences, not just sights
  • “Not to Be Missed” list for each section of the guide
  • “Further Reading” section
  • Solid information


  • Layout is not as easy for a quick peruse as some other guides

Comments – These beautiful guides make for great pre-trip reading



Audience – Upscale North American tourists


  • “If You Like” section listing interests such as history or shopping with good places to pursue those
  • Itineraries
  • Easy to use layout
  • Thorough information with all the essential features
  • “Fodor’s Choice” ratings for the top picks and tags for family friendly sights


  • On the dull side

Comments – I’ve never really connected to Fodor’s style, they cover the essentials, but don’t interest me.


Lonely Planet

Audience – The backpacker crowd


  • Special section “With Kids”
  • The standard necessary information
  • Nice color photo section of the top sights
  • “If You Like” section to help customize your trip
  • Often the only guide covering more exotic destinations
  • Gives suggestions for experiences not just sights

Cons (which could be pros if this is your style)

  • Geared toward a younger more liberal crowd
  • Includes lots of physically adventurous ideas
  • Geared towards going on the cheap


Comments – These guides are useful as an additional resource and for adventure ideas. I take them with a grain of salt, keeping in mind my style and who they are written for.

Remember, guides are only your starting point to help you make a rough itinerary. However, I find them to be the most fun part of the trip planning process. We’ll cover the rest of the process in another post. Happy Travels!


Next Stop – Tula, Mexico


Our tour of Mexico continues.  Next stop . . .Tula.

Tula is one of the smaller Mesoamerican archeological sites, located right in the middle of the bustling city of Tula de Allende, just an hour southwest of Mexico City. In its heyday it was the capital of the Toltecs.  Tula (650-900 AD) is not as well studied as the nearby site of Teotihuacan (approx. 100 BC-550 AD), which came before it, and Tenochtitlan (1325-1521) Aztec, which came after it, so there are disagreements among experts as to the social structure and life at Tula. The site consists of a museum, a cactus garden, and the site itself.

Tula is known for the “giants” that stand on top of the main pyramid. These impressive hand carved stone warriors originally held up the roof.  Now they stand guard over the site.  The different motifs carved into these massive columns announce their rank and station.  I found it particularly interesting that these warriors had butterflies carved into them, apparently it was a symbol of strength and honor for them.

From the top of the pyramid you can see the whole valley. The climb up was not difficult. The view gives quite the juxtaposition between the peacefulness of the archeological site and the chaos of the modern city surrounding it. When at the top, you can also see the other buildings of the site and the two ball courts.  There’s a long wall near one of the ball courts that reportedly displayed the heads of the people that were conquered and the heads of the winners of the ball game.

At the bottom of the main pyramid they have preserved and are restoring the original carvings that were on the temple. A school group was taking a tour and we overheard their guide telling the story and meaning of the carvings. The pyramid is called the Temple of Quetzalcoatl and the carvings depict the transformation from snake into man.   There are also eagles, bears, and jaguars carved on the temple.  It is beautiful and fascinating.

When you arrive, pay at the front desk.  It was about 50 pesos a person which is around $2.50 USD. Take 20 minutes to go through the museum before you tour the site.  The museum has artifacts and explains what is known about Tula’s history and society.  There are some similarities between the Toltecs and the people in Chitzen Itza that were pointed out in the museum.


Next, walk the half mile long dirt road to the archeological site.  It will take you past the cactus garden.  I recommend you stop and walk around the hundreds of varieties of cacti. Some varieties have beautiful blooms in Jan and Feb. Other times of the year you’ll see the cactus fruit, called tuna, on the Nopale cactus. Stick to the paths and roads.  There are supposedly snakes in the brush.

As you walk on the road to the site, you will pass vendors selling souvenirs.  You must have cash and you can haggle your price down on most things. I recommend buying the frozen juices (popsicles).  The lime and the coconut are my favorites and so refreshing on a hot day. Wear a hat (or buy one from the vendors) because the sun is intense, as the elevation is quite high.

The whole site of Tula (museum, walk, and pyramids) can take as little as 2 hours to tour. If you are with someone who has mobility issues, bring a wheel chair.  My father-in-law tried to use his walker, but the wheels are too small and would get caught on the rocks on the dirt road. I think the archeological site is fun for kids.  There’s lots of climbing to do and they can run around in the buildings and the ball courts.  But if they are little, keep a close eye on them.  There are some steep drop offs, especially at the top of the pyramid.  They may not be too interested in the museum, except for the statue of the God of the Wind.  They performed sacrifices and would place the heart of the victim on the statue. I bet there are some little boys who would be fascinated by that gruesome tale.  You can see several of those statues at the base of the main pyramid.



Craving A Bit of Hawaii in Utah? Head to Kaili’s!!!


My mouth is watering as I dream of a fresh Seasoned Cake Noodle. Best described as a sort of Asian style latke, only with noodles instead of potatoes, covered in tangy teriyaki sauce and moist chicken. I think of breaking the crispy pan-fried crust and diving into the soft middle. Surprisingly, this Hawaiian derived dish is not found in Oahu, but in a little Southwestern desert town that you have never heard of, Santa Clara, UT. Even more surprising is the building, a restored pioneer home from the 1870’s, complete with front porch and surrounded by a garden of herbs and flowers.

Owner Herb Basso, a native of Oahu, and his wife Wendy, opened the restaurant in 2013 based on a Pacific Rim theme. They knew Santa Clara was out of the way and that to succeed the restaurant needed to be special. It is. Freshness is a key component. The Bassos live down the street and have an extensive garden at their home. Some of the produce finds its way onto the plates of their guests. Much of the rest of the produce is bought at the produce stand across the street.  This means the dishes change seasonally and can include things not normally found at restaurants such as a long curling Asian string bean Herb grew in the garden, persimmons, roasted beets or chard. Even though it is not listed on the menu, you MUST ask for the melon ice cream, which is refreshing and not too sweet. All of this upscale freshness is reasonably priced. The only thing on the menu that didn’t thrill me was the mint infused lemonade. It was well-made, but the mint didn’t quite work. (That’s a matter of taste.  OraLynn loves mint lemonade)

The building itself adds to the charm. Refurbished wood floors, small rooms and white tablecloths make the atmosphere cozy. The original architectural features make it feel less like a business and more like a home. Despite the size they easily accommodated our group of seven, including a baby and children. If the weather is nice head outside to dine in the garden surrounded by rosemary bushes and hollyhocks. Either way find your way to this garden-to-table mom and pop gem. And if you are wondering about the name, ask Herb to tell you about his uncle, the first Hawaiian to win the Medal of Honor.

There is no children’s menu, but if you ask, they have children’s portioned bowls for $5. They include rice and your choice of meat and sauce.

By: Rae


Photography Tips

Photography Tip

20170513_135816 I just love this picture I took of my niece Caroline and her boyfriend Rafael.  I blurred out the background and focused on them.  They were all smiles and cute cuddles. The composition was good, the light was good on their faces. I was so proud of myself and then I noticed a huge glaring flaw.  I was in the picture! I saw my reflection in Caroline’s sunglasses.  Dang it!  I tried to edit myself out but my app didn’t do a very good job of that, so I left it in the picture. It would have been so easy to have her take off the glasses.  Lesson learned.  Look at reflective surfaces and make sure you aren’t in the picture.  Unless that’s what you’re going for.


Tolantongo – Mexico cont.

Next stop on our mini-tour of Mexico – Tolantongo!  Head to the mountains in Hidalgo to enjoy this little known piece of heaven hidden at the bottom of a canyon.  “Tourists” aren’t usually aware that this place exists.  When my husband was a kid the only road down was a one lane dirt road.  When my in-laws were kids, it was a donkey trail (No, I’m not kidding. They rode donkeys down the canyon.) Fortunately, it has been widened to a 2 lane road, about half of it paved.  The steep, narrow decent provides views of the canyon with its cactus, pine trees, sage brush, banana and papaya trees, and occasional wild flowers.  It is weird and wonderful to see the mix of desert and tropical plants in a mountain setting.  Mother Nature created this place for the purpose of relaxing and renewing the soul.

Tolantongo is known for three things: its large cave, river, and potacitas.


The cave-fed river is shallow and lazily slow; making it perfect for relaxing, floating, and playing. The minerals in the water make the river pale turquoise.   It’s waist deep for an adult.  People camp by the river so you will always smell some delicious morsel cooking over the fire.  It makes my mouth water and I wish I could join that family for lunch. I stay in the hotels in the park so I just pop into the restaurant or snack bar for my meals. There’s not a lot of shade by the river and the sun can be quite intense, so wear and re-apply sunscreen often.


A cold waterfall comes down the mountain and falls over the entrance to the large cave.  Once inside though, it has warm waterfalls rushing into it through the ceiling to form a shallow lake. The large mouth of the cave lets in enough sunlight to illuminate the whole area.  Off to the right is a smaller cave..  The water gets a little deeper and the current coming out runs fast, but there’s a rope to hold onto until you get past the current and then the water is only about knee deep.  It is completely dark in the small cave, so bring a headlamp or use your cellphone flashlight.  You can sit and relax, float, play in the warm waterfalls, and explore the cave.  People spend hours in there.   Inside the cave alien looking stalactites hover over your head in a world gone grey. Sit and enjoy the view of the multicolored world outside. The walk up to the cave takes you past lush vegetation; colorful flowers and flowering trees and other smaller waterfalls.  You can hear the soothing sound of water from any place in the park.

Next to the large cave is a much smaller cave.  There’s no light and it has really warm, almost hot, water and it gets pretty steamy in this cave. I don’t like to stay in there very long. It takes about 5 minutes to walk to the back of the cave. Be careful in there, it’s slippery and uneven, but worth the effort.

NOTE ABOUT KIDS – OMG the kids were having a blast in the cave and the river.  They can bring floating toys into the river, but not the cave. Like I said, the water is not deep so they feel like they have a lot of independence, but they still need to be supervised.  Even though the water runs down the mountain from the cave to the river, it’s blocked off with a net so no one can be swept downstream.  Very safe.  Some of the really little kids didn’t like having to go under the cold waterfall to get into the cave. I think it scared them just a little.  But once inside they loved it.

NOTE FOR THE ELDERLY – The approximately 20-minute walk from the hotel to the base of the cave can be strenuous. Then you have to climb stairs and keep walking up the path to the mouth of the cave.  There’s a 4-wheeler that pulls a little trailer that you can pay to ride up to the point of the stairs.  My father-in-law swore he’d never ride it again.  It seemed fast to him and was very bumpy.  He almost fell out and that scared him.


My favorite things in Tolantongo are the potacitas, or “little pools”.  There are a lot of minerals in the water that hardened to form 42 little pools in the side of the mountain, great for relaxing and enjoying the scenery.  The water runs from one pool to another.  .  Visit them all and you will get a different view of the valley with each one. The potacitas overlook the valley and are surrounded by tropical plants and the large lush trees provide ample shade for many of the pools.  A landslide years ago wiped out many of the naturally formed pools.  The park built concrete pools into the mountain and the minerals have hardened and smoothed on these pools making them look like they’ve been there forever.

My favorite pools are a short hike down the mountain. It’s not as crowded and usually very quiet down there.  They are like infinity pools.  I relax at the edge, look out over the valley, listen to the birds or watch the occasional gecko scramble away, and feel like I’m in my own little world.  I also love to float on my back and stare at the blue sky and clouds meandering by.  At the zipline go straight down. The path follows the stream down the mountain to the pools.

Now for the Practical stuff.

When you arrive at the gate you have to pay upfront for each day you stay in the park.  You pay 140 pesos per person/per day.  Keep those tickets.  You must show them when you leave the park or they will make you pay for an extra day.

There’s an upper and lower part to the park. The lower part is down by the river and the upper part is by the potacitas.  There are hotels and restaurants in both areas.  All the hotels and restaurants charge the same.  All the restaurants have the same menu. There are snack bars located throughout the park, as well.  The hotels charge 600-650 (depending on if it has a balcony or not) pesos per day for a 2 person room, 4 person (2 bed) rooms are 800-850, and 6 person (3 bed) rooms are 1100-1150 pesos. EVERYTHING IS PAID IN CASH.  Let me repeat that.  CASH ONLY.  No place in the park accepts credit cards. Not at the gate, not for food, and not for the hotel. Come with cash because the closest ATM is in town an hour away.  And THEY DO NOT ACCEPT RESERVATIONS.  Yes, it’s possible that you could show up and they don’t have any rooms available.  You just take your chances.  Show up early in the morning and don’t go on the weekend. Weekends are crowded and noisy

Bring and wear water shoes.  You will be walking on rocks in the caves and the river.  You will be miserable if you don’t wear water shoes.  I do not recommend flip flops.  They could come off with the current and be washed downstream.  I always wear my Tevas.  They are comfortable and supportive for walking up the mountain to the cave, they stay on my feet, they are thick enough that I don’t feel the rocks, and they keep my feet cool.  My husband used a slip-on water shoe.  They don’t have any support and by the end of the day his feet were killing him from all the walking.

Wear WATERPROOF sunscreen at all times. The sun is intense at this altitude and the days are long.  You will probably be out in the water until sunset. Even if you are in the shade the sun will reflect off the water and burn you. Some people also wear bug spray.

Bring a waterproof case for your phone or camera.  The views are stunning and you will see plants, waterfalls and cave landscapes that you can’t see back at home.  Capture those memories.  Because I’m in the water all day and I don’t want to miss out on a photo op, I put my phone (camera) in a waterproof case.  I also use the flashlight on my phone in the dark part of the cave. You might think that you can be careful enough to not get the phone wet or drop it in the water, but you would be wrong. You can’t even get into the cave without going under the waterfall and getting soaked, not wet, soaked. It is also easy to slip on the rocks in the water.  Better safe than sorry.

If you are staying more than one day, I recommend bringing at least 2 swimming suits.  It’s a bit humid at Tolantongo and my suits never seem to dry very fast.  I hate putting on a wet suit so I usually bring more than one.

As I mentioned, there are 2, 4, and 6 person rooms.  They are not fancy.  This is not a resort.  The rooms do not have A/C, a fridge, a coffee maker, or safe.  They do provide a fan, towels, (not washcloths), toilet paper and hand soap.  The shower uses the water from the mountain that is naturally heated.  As a result there is no temperature control, no “hot” shower.  Just a warm shower.   There’s a pool with a slide at the hotels in the upper part of the park.

People, mostly locals, also camp at Tolantongo.  If you want to camp you can bring your own tent, tables and chairs, or you can rent them at the park. There are showers, bathrooms, and changing rooms throughout the park. You can put your tent anywhere you want.  Set up down by the river, on the concrete, in the woods, really anywhere. The bathrooms do not have toilet paper so bring your own. I always put TP and hand sanitizer in the bag I carry around all day.

The zip line was a fun activity at the park.  It’s located in the upper part of the park.  It had 4 stops.  It was so much fun soaring over the tree tops, potacitas, and river.  Absolutely beautiful views that you can’t get anywhere else.  It’s one of the smaller zip lines I’ve been on, not scary at all. For me it was more relaxing than “high adventure”.

Do not go to Tolantongo on the weekends.  Because it’s mostly locals that visit the park, it’s packed on the weekends.  People are camping everywhere, families are crammed into the potacitas, and packed into the cave. It’s loud and not very relaxing.  Come Monday – Thursday and you will have a much more pleasant experience.  I’ve been to Tolantongo in October,  January and May.  It was warm during all my visits, although in January it was a lot cooler. It was a little chilly for husband when he got out of the pools in the evening.  I preferred October.

This place is unique and a must see if you are wanting to see the “real” Mexico.  I’ve never been any place like it.






No pictures with this post.  LOL.

Let’s get into the practical aspect of travel and a question that you will hear from your family more than one time during your trip – Where’s the bathroom?  Ah yes, international bathroom usage is a unique experience.  Who am I kidding, sometimes it just plain sucks. Different countries have different ideas about sanitation and public access to facilities. Here are some tips for making this experience less heinous and uncomfortable.  I live in Mexico so I’ll focus mostly on that.

First of all, no matter what country you are visiting, know how to ask “Where is the bathroom” in that country’s language.  Even if you can’t fully understand the directions you are given, there will be a lot of pointing, so you can have a general idea and figure it out.  In MEXICO you say “donde esta el bano?”, pronounced “dohnday esta el bonyo”.  You also need to know the words for Men and Women, as that will prevent the inevitable embarrassment of walking into the wrong bathroom.  In Mexico they use Hombres for Men and Mujeres for Women.  You’ll also see Caballeros for Men and Damas for Women.

The bathrooms of department stores, malls, hotels and nice restaurants are very similar to our American bathrooms.  They will usually have soap and water and toilet paper.  Some have a baby changing station.  Warning: You will see a garbage can in every stall that is filled with used toilet paper.  Yes, it’s disgusting, but here’s why they do that.  The water pressure in Mexico is not the same as the US, so many people, especially from the poorer neighborhoods, don’t flush the used paper. They throw it away. Some bathrooms even have signs in the stalls asking you not to flush the Papel (paper). I flush it anyway.  Sometimes you’ll have to flush it twice. And always hold the handle down until the toilet is almost flushed.

Sometimes the toilet paper provided is not in the stalls.  There will be a big roll of paper just outside or inside the door to the bathroom.   So estimate wisely.  Or do what I do, and ALWAYS carry toilet paper in your purse.

Another thing to always carry with you is hand sanitizer.  Even the “nice” bathrooms sometimes don’t have soap.

Now if you are out shopping at a local outdoor market (which are super fun and I highly recommend) you will encounter a completely different bathroom.  You have to pay for these bathrooms.  It’s usually 3-5 pesos.  That is per person, even children.  Make sure you have exact change.  They hand you the toilet paper.  So essentially, you’re rationed (again, ALWAYS carry TP with you).  The toilets don’t have a toilet seat.  I like to carry disinfectant wipes in a Ziploc baggie with me for that reason.  And they usually don’t have soap.

If you’re traveling on the freeways, several of the gas stations have bathrooms.  But you have to pay for them.  Sometimes you put your money into a machine and walk through the revolving door.  Be quick going through the door.  If you’re not ready or quick enough, it will lock and you’ll have to pay again.

Mexican bathrooms smell bad.  Just prepare yourself.  Between the used TP in the waste basket, the poor plumbing that allows sewer gases to come up the pipes, and the strong air fresheners used to cover up the not so nice smells, it can be a little overpowering.

Notes about other country’s bathrooms:

SWITZERLAND: They are generally clean and well stocked, but they are hard to find.  There are not very many public restrooms in Switzerland.  The gas stations don’t have them.  Stores don’t have them.  Restaurants have restrooms but only for their patrons.  I found myself drinking a lot less water so I wouldn’t have to find a restroom as often.  The bathroom sign for men will read Her and the women’s will be Frau.

ITALY: The bathrooms are small and hard to find. Most of the major tourist areas have one hiding somewhere. Ask around. These are usually free, but occasionally cost a few coins. In one museum, there were two closets with a toilet each used by both men and women and then the sink was in the hallway.  In Verona, it was in the tourist parking garage and cost. Most sit-down restaurants will have one for customers, take advantage. The bathroom sign for men will read Uomini and the women’s will be Donne.

IRELAND: The bathroom situation is fairly similar to the US. On the street, you will find some pay toilet cubicles. They are clean and have paper. You might just want to use one for the experience. Everything is automatic and the seat retracts into the wall and comes back out clean. All the tourist sites have facilities.

So to sum up:






Feel free to comment about your international bathroom experiences, but please don’t be too graphic.  Haha.


Cove Fort,UT

Rae and her family recently took a trip to Washington, Utah and Idaho.  Here’s her review of one of the places her family enjoyed.

If you find yourself in Utah at the junction of interstates 15 and 70, you can do like the early pioneers and stop at Cove Fort for a rest in your journey. You will find a clean bathroom, nice gardens and an interesting detour into history led by friendly volunteer guides. Unlike the pioneers, you will not find a bed for the night, a hot meal or a blacksmith to repair your wagon. Although you can see where all those things happened as well as the telegraph office, barn, and cowboy bunk house.

In 1867 Brigham Young asked Ira Hinckley to move to the area and establish a fort as a waystation and safe refuge for travelers. Hinckley and his family then ran the fort for over twenty years. Nowadays you can see the bustling life the family led as Mrs. Hinckley and her seven daughters cooked for 30-40 people a day and lodged them. The family’s private rooms as well as the dining hall and lodger’s rooms are all decorated in period pieces. Don’t worry, all the antiques are behind waist high plexiglass so your kids can’t hurt anything.

(First picture is a cowboy mousetrap. Second picture is of a pioneer game)

Behind the fort is the blacksmith shop where Mr. Hinckley repaired wagons and shod horses. There is plenty to touch and climb on for modern boys as well. A prairie schooner is used for photo ops. The cowboy bunkhouse has a pioneer hoop game they can play and a cowboy mousetrap that enthralled my four-year-old. The boys were encouraged to move the 1,000lb fort doors, which they could. They also received a souvenir spool and yarn toy.

The volunteer guides are senior-citizens from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, many grandparents themselves. Our guide was knowledgeable, friendly and seemed to genuinely enjoy sharing history with my boys. She tried to bring to life the Old West adventure had by the Hinckley boys. We also learned the origin of such phrases as “pop goes the weasel” and “sleep tight”.

(Life in the Old West)

If you are in the area, this site is well worth an hour of your time. Schedule is 9am to dusk with free admission. Parking, restrooms. Large lawn for running.


ADHD rating:

H – Medium (all the antiques are behind a plexiglass partition so they can’t destroy anything valuable)

Interest – Partial The guide did tailor the tour to our interests and as a grandmother, was good at pulling the boy’s interest back.

San Miguel De Allende, Mexico

The ruins at La Canada – San Miguel cont.


When you think of Mexico a few things come to mind: Mariachi’s, parched deserts, lush jungles, sandy beaches, tacos, and ancient ruins. There are 29,000 archaeological sites in Mexico. Obviously, not all are open to the public.  There are the well-known sites such as Teotihuacan, Chichen Itza, Tulum, and Coba.  Then there are the smaller, hidden gems.  La Canada de la Virgen is one such site.


()Top left is the main pyramid called The House of 13 Heavens. Top right is The House of Wind. Bottom picture is the amphitheater of The House of the Longest Night.

The archaeological site of La Canada de la Virgen is located on a private Hacienda, or ranch, just 20 minutes outside of San Miguel. Because it’s a working ranch, you will hear and see cows that wander around the site. It is believed that the Otomi settled here after the fall of Teotihuacan, around 300 AD, because of the rich resources and abundant water supply.  Archaeologists think that the depletion of these resources is the reason that the city was abandoned 600 years later.  The city falls along a trade route so they have found jewelry, stones, and shells from other parts of Mexico. La Canada consists of two pyramids, a large pyramid and a smaller spiral shaped pyramid, an amphitheater and a garden. The garden was added by the caretakers of the site to display the plants that were used by the ancient people for their medicine, paint, food, and textiles.  They also use the garden to display the thousands of pieces of broken pottery found at the site. The guide leads you around the garden, the small pyramid, the outdoor amphitheater, and then the main pyramid, stopping frequently to explain the significance of the buildings.

Not all of the known buildings are uncovered. When you are at the top of the main pyramid you can see what looks like little hills or mounds of dirt, but are actually buildings they haven’t excavated yet. As a result, they keep finding new artifacts and learning new information.   I’ve been 3 times and every time I go they’ve added something new to the little museum at the visitor’s center.

(Pictures of the House of 13 Heavens)

My favorite part is seeing the view of the hills and little canyons from the top of the large pyramid. And there’s always a cool refreshing breeze at the top.  There’s a courtyard at the base of the pyramid that has great acoustics.  You can hear a conversation taking place at the other end of the courtyard.  They believe it was designed like that so they could talk to the people and not yell. The pyramid is designed to track the sun and moon.  During certain times of year, such as  during the summer and winter solstices, the sun or moon will be exactly in the center of the pyramid. During the Spring, the cactus are blooming. Those bright patches of color look so out of place, like butterflies trying to avoid the prickly stalks.

At the visitor’s center you pay, about $3, and then get on a bus.  The bus takes you a couple of miles and then you walk the rest of the way.  The guide takes you about a half mile, uphill, to the ruins. Then you walk around the site and it’s a half mile back down.  It’s about 2.5 miles all together.   The tour is in Spanish so go with a translator or just enjoy the ruins and read about them online later. La Canada is closed on Mondays. It is open Tuesday to Sunday 9am – 6pm.

GENERAL NOTE: Go in the morning so you don’t get too hot.  Wear sunscreen and a hat. The whole tour takes about 2 hours so use the restroom at the visitor center before you leave on the tour.  You can’t bring any bags or purses with you on the tour.  You can bring whatever will fit in your pocket; like a water bottle and cell phone.

NOTE FOR CHILDREN: Strollers are also not allowed so make sure your kids can walk at least 2 miles or else you’ll be carrying them for 2 miles. The hike up the hill is rocky and strenuous.  The guide will tell you over and over that you absolutely cannot take anything from the site.  Not even a pebble from the path. Make sure your rock collecting little boys and girls know this very strict rule.  And again, no bags, including diaper bags.

NOTE FOR THE ELDERLY: As previously mentioned, the hike can be a little bit tough.  My mother and father-in-law can’t do it because they can’t walk too much or be on their feet for the amount of time this tour takes.  My 70-year-old mother could do it, but she had to take a few breaks.  She couldn’t go up the steep steps of the pyramid so she just waited for us at the bottom.  My dad had no problem.   Take the elevation into consideration. San Miguel de Allende is about 5500 feet above sea level. This can cause some shortness of breath even for people who are in shape.  This site is NOT handicap accessible.

San Miguel De Allende, Mexico

La Gruta – San Miguel de Allende continued

A local favorite just a few miles out of San Miguel de Allende is La Grutas or The Caves.  This park has harnessed the warm springs in the area to create a beautiful, peaceful, oasis with several shallow warm pools and lush green vegetation that makes it easy to relax. The flowers and fountains on the property make a tropical atmosphere.

Some pools are knee deep (perfect for little kids), others waist high.  The pool that leads to the main Gruta is close to 5 feet deep.  All the pools are surrounded with lounge chairs, so lie down, read a book, and watch the kids play in the shallow pool. There are tables with umbrellas if you are looking for shade. The pools have a ledge in the water to sit on and relax.  Several people will sit there in the pool with their drinks.


For a more invigorating experience walk through the tunnel to the main gruta, or cave and stand under the hot water pouring into it from the ceiling.  My father-in-law says it relaxes his muscles. It can get pretty hot and steamy in that cave.  I can only be in there for 10 minutes max. Then retreat to the cooler pools and your lounge chair. It’s a lovely way to spend a day.

The park is $7 and they do take credit cards.  It closes at 5pm.  There are bathrooms, changing rooms, and lockers available.  It also has a restaurant (the food is pretty good), snack bar (sodas, chips, candy, etc), swim shop, and a spa on site. Go early in the day.  Wear sunscreen.  Don’t go on the weekend, it’s very crowded. La Gruta is closed on Tuesdays for cleaning.


Travel In Sanity Adds A New Feature


The CDC reports that there are 6.4 million children in the US with ADHD. If you are raising one of them, you know that travel can be a real challenge. Nothing says family fun like yelling at your kid every 30 seconds to stop touching, running, climbing, screaming, etc. I feel your pain, but I haven’t let it stop me from expanding my son’s world through travel. To help you in trip planning all reviews written by Rae will now include two ADHD ratings; one for how well the attraction/activity is for hyperactive little bodies and one for interest level.


The H-rating (for hyperactivity) will be as follows:

Good – this venue is great for kids to run, touch and play

Medium – this venue is appropriate for the wiggles with some exceptions or with the need to be considerate of other people

Bad – Quiet, walking and no touching are expected


The Interest rating will be more subjective based on how my son reacted to the activity/attraction. The ratings are as follows:

No Interest – the kids didn’t get into it at all

Partial Interest – the kids had a short span of interest before getting wiggly and wandering off

Engrossed – the kids were really into it