Chichicastenango – one of the oldest Mayan Markets in Central America

CHICHICASTENANGO MARKET and LAKE ATITLAN, GUATEMALA: Visiting Chichicastenango Market is almost a must if you want to experience the unique culture and centuries old history of Guatemalan Mayans. This is a perfect place to talk to the locals, get a glimpse of their lifestyle, or just to enjoy their daily hustling while doing some shopping. 

There are 25 different cultures in Guatemala and 22 of them are from Mayan ethnic group. Unfortunately, (what our guide told us) Mayan language is only taught in private schools here now. 90% of the highlands people in Guatemala are Mayans and visiting Chichicastenango gives you a small window to that rich heritage. 

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A scene of Chichicastenango Market in Guatemala

This was my first excursion in Guatemala. I booked this online couple weeks before reaching the country. It was $75 per adult for a 12-hours of day trip from Guatemala City, organized by Gray Line Guatemala. We were picked up around 6:30am and were returned to our hotels around 7-ish in the evening. Lunch was included with the package. It was a small group of only 6/7 people in a big van. I won’t lie, this was a long trip and we were in the car for more than 3 hours before reaching Chichicastenango Mayan Market. But I have to say Gray Line Guatemala was a very friendly and accomodating tour company and I loved our guide, Juan Pablo. 

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Chichicastenango Market in Guatemala

MY HOTEL: I stayed in “Oh Espana”…a bed and breakfast-style accommodation in Zone 13 in Guatemala City. The capital is divided into different zones; make sure to pick your hotel carefully, as some zones are not safe for the tourists. The owner lady and the cook were very friendly and helpful. Although a traditional breakfast was included, the location was not that great. It was in some kind of a military residential neighborhood…very safe and gated. But there were absolutely no restaurants or stores within walking distance. Thanks to my ramen cup noodles that I brought from home, which I had to eat for few of my dinners. It was only 3 minutes drive from the airport and hotel had free shuttle service…but again, I wouldn’t stay there again next time I go to Guatemala. 

My recommendation, if anyone is going to Guatemala for a vacation, is to stay in Antigua. It’s about an hour away from the airport. But once you are there, it’s heaven. I know for sure, if I ever go back to Guatemala, I’ll stay in Antigua…especially Hotel Porta Antigua looked fantastic to me inside and out. 

TIME of TRAVEL: I visited Guatemala during the long weekend of Thanksgiving, 2019. I had 3 full days to roam around different parts of the country. 2 more extra days here would have given me the flexibility to visit Tikal, the famous Mayan ruins site in Central America. It gets pretty chilly at night and early morning around this time of the year. During the day time, you can go out with a t-shirt and it’s very pleasant. But if you are traveling with kids in November to Guatemala, I would recommend carrying a sweater.

EATING and SHOPPING: Our lunch was included in the package and it was in Chichicastenango Market. It was in a cozy, 2-floored restaurant, called St. Thomas. While I was waiting near the balcony on the 2nd floor and looking out the door to the local vendors on the street, I was served with some black corn tortillas with a bowl of soup. For the main dish I ordered chicken in papiene sauce (a pepper sauce) that came with potatoes and avocado on the side. While I didn’t really enjoy the chicken main dish, the soup and the black tortillas were amazing. The restaurant itself is decorated beautifully with colorful local decors and comes with very friendly waiters. 

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My delicious lunch – black corn tortillas with soup in Chichicastenango Market, Guatemala

FYI, with 10 different species of corn in Guatemala, I guess, trying out different types of corn is a must. 

Chichicastenango Market is a heaven for souvenir hunters, like me. It’s a colorful and attractive outdoor market with variety of items from fresh vegetables, fruit, and local dishes to textiles, wooden masks, potterries, and other decors. Most of the vendors here are Mayan women. Don’t forget or feel frustrated bargaining with each vendor…it’s their culture, so enjoy it without overthinking the process or fear of losing money or getting a better deal somewhere else. I bought 6 small wooden bowls for $20 and 5 table runners (combination of cotton and silk table runners) for $120, which I later found out, I probably could have gotten these a bit cheaper price. 

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Traditional Central American dolls in Chichicastenango Market, Guatemala

Coffee, chocolate, vanilla, jade jewelry, textiles, pottery, hammocks, masks, and wooden trinkets are some of the popular gifts to buy from Guatemala. 

PLACES I’VE VISITED: This tour was about 12 hours of long journey which highlights only 2 places…Chichicastenango Market and Lake Atitlan. I had 2 more extra days in Guatemala for which, I spent a day in the capital and my last day in historic Antigua.

  1. CHICHICASTENANGO MARKET: Chichicastenango Market was about 3 hours drive from Guatemala City. So you have to start the day very early. This is a Mayan market which is more than 500 years old and believed to be one of the oldest outdoor markets in Central America. The city of Chichicastenango itself a beautiful city on a small hill which we passed by upon entering and has about 60K people.
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Chichicastenango Market in Guatemala

After reaching the market, we pushed the crowded small streets of vendors to reach our first spot. It was the big indoor area where fresh produce and other local food items are sold. It’s very colorful and is an energetic place to see locals going on with their daily lives. Mostly Mayan women are the sellers in this market. This is a crowded place with lots of vendors, local buyers, and tourists. Therefore, this is a very common place (as we were told by our guide) for pick-pocketing…keep your belongings very careful here. 

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Indoor market of Chichicastenango in Guatemala, where fresh produces are sold

Next we were taken to St. Thomas Church. This Catholic church is located at one end of Chichicastenango Market and was built around mid to later part of the 16th century by the Spaniards.

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Right outside St. Thomas Church in Chichicastenango Market, Guatemala

While outside of the church was packed with flower vendors on the stairs and countless people nearby, this is a very simple church inside with a calm and peaceful courtyard. Interesting fact and a beautiful scene in this church is that, you can see both Catholics and Mayans are doing their own rituals and using it equally. While the beautiful incense were burning and spreading mystical smell, we saw Catholics were praying closer to the main altar and a Mayan woman walking on her knees to the altar. This was beautiful to watch as they kept their own heritage while being very respectful to the other believers. 

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Inside St. Thomas Church in Chichicastenango Market, Guatemala

One of the most beautiful places in Chichicastenango city is the colorful cemetery where we didn’t go but saw from the hill from a bit far away. The color of the tombstone in that cemetery represents the favorite color of the person who passed away. 

In the market, especially near St. Thomas Church, it’s very easy to get lost. In fact, for a few seconds, I couldn’t find my group and was frantically looking each direction for them. Thanks to our assistant tour guide who saw me and told me where they are. Use some basic cautions when you are there, especially if you have kids or traveling with a large group.

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Some locals of Chichicastenango Market in Guatemala

2. LAKE ATITLAN: The drive from Chichicastenango Market to Lake Atitlan was about an hour and fifteen minutes in the district, called Solola in Guatemala. We stopped at San Francisco Panajachel town to visit Lake Atitlan and spent anywhere from 30-45 minutes by the lake, just walking around the lake, taking some shots, and checking out the Mayan market. 

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Lake Atitlan in Panajachel, Guatemala

The lake, in a massive volcanic crater, is surrounded by mountains, especially 3 volcanoes around the lake. We were told by the guide that the lake is 23km long and the deepest point of the lake is 350 meters. 

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Lake Atitlan in Panajachel, Guatemala

Overall, I wasn’t a big fan of Lake Atitlan for the effort and time it took to get there from Chichicastenango Market. Lake Atitlan is a beautiful place with mountains and volcanoes, but the long winding journey was not fun and if I knew, I would have just gone with half a day to Chichicastenango Market.

Vegas, Vegas Everywhere

LAS VEGAS, NEVADA: I don’t even know why I am blogging about Las Vegas. This is one of the world class tourist destinations in the world and somewhere around 40 million people visit Las Vegas every year. So chances are that everyone who is reading it have been there at least once maybe (mostly for the North Americans). 

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Walking around at night

But I do recommend one thing in Vegas, other than just hopping from one casino to another and trying out all sorts of food or shopping in expensive stores; that is please get out of the city and enjoy the beautiful mountains and valleys that Nevada has to offer. Hoover Dam, Red Rock Canyon, Grand Canyon, Sedona, Death Valley…some of these places are only half an hour to a few hours of drive and they have majestic landscapes, spectacular mountains with lots of activities to do. These ideal getaways, especially if you are traveling with kids. 

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Vegas life

I went back to Vegas after about 15 years and it looked almost exactly the same as I remember from 2004. Maybe new hotels here and there or slightly more crowded. But overall, the essence of Las Vegas was still the same…energetic, noisy, hustling, and fun. Yes, it’s an exciting city to be in for any age. For those who are not into gambling like me, believe me you will find something you’ll like everytime you are in this Sin City. 

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Vegas, Vegas, and more Vegas

OUR HOTEL: We stayed in Stratosphere Tower or The Strat this time. It’s a bit off the main strip of Vegas, but Uber or public buses are there to take you around. It’s surrounded by many shops and restaurants. Inside the hotel, cafes, steakhouse, buffet, and Starbucks are there. Stratosphere also has Skypod restaurant, extreme rides (like skyjump), observation deck, and rooftop pool. If you are a fan of King of Pop, Michael Jackson, Stratosphere’s theater also arranges MJ Live Tribute Concert every evening. Stratosphere’s buffet is also way cheaper than many other casinos. Depending on the day/night of the year, it’s usually somewhere around $20 per adult. 

TIME of TRAVEL: My daughters and I were in Vegas during their winter break of 2019. We stayed there for 4 nights and 3 full days to enjoy as much possible in and around the city. This is a great time to see the Christmas and holiday decorations in each hotel and casino. The temperature is not as warm as I thought it would be. It was around 50s during the day but at night, it drops down to 40s. So carrying a sweater is a good idea. 

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Gorgeous day near Venetian in December

EATING and SHOPPING: I guess you don’t have to worry much about finding a restaurant in Vegas. Everywhere you look on the boulevard, at least 10 restaurants will be there in every direction. Since my girls and I are big In ‘N Out Burgers’ fans, we ate twice there…on the Linq Promenade. Shake Shack is another excellent burger place you can try. We also had dinner buffet at Stratosphere, called Crafted Buffet. It had all the variety of delicious food yet is cheaper than most of the buffets in town. For around $25 per adult and half the price of kids…we had excellent dinners there twice. Another few places I would recommend, if you are into celebrity TV shows, is trying out celebrity chefs’ restaurants. Bobby Flay, Iron Chef Morimoto, Wolfgang Puck, Giada, and etc…they all have some kind of big of small restaurants in Vegas. Gordon Ramsey has few of his own eateries here too. For one of the lunches, we tried Gordon Ramsey’s Hell’s Kitchen in Caesar’s Palace. My daughters’ baked salmon, burger, and finally…my lobster risotto, phew…I can never forget the taste of that risotto. To finish it off, we had sticky toffee pudding…it was a perfect sweet treat to end the course. We had to wait in line for half an hour but the service is pretty fast and the whole restaurant is themed around the TV show “Hell’s Kitchen” and with blue and red team.   

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Lunching in Hell’s Kitchen in Las Vegas, NV

Souvenir shops are almost everywhere in Vegas. We liked the unique ones on Linq Promenade and other factory shops (see below). By the way, In ‘N Out Burgers also has a factory store somewhere around The Strip. Every hotel/casino has their own souvenir shops and other brand name clothing stores too, if you are into brand names. 

 

PLACES WE’VE VISITED: Below are some of the things we did in Las Vegas. Next time, we are definitely going to the downtown area where the world’s largest LCD display can be seen with laser show and all (at least that’s what I heard). Checking out few other casinos/hotels would also be nice for next trip, like Excalibur, Luxor, Mandalay Bay, or Paris. If you are here for a longer time, drive to Sedona, AZ…a red rock city which makes a great getaway from this busy place. 

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My lobster risotto in Hell’s Kitchen in Las Vegas…I can still taste it in my mouth.

 

Below are some of the places we visited, things we did, and shows we watched in Vegas:

  1. THE LINQ PROMENADE: This is a busy pedestrian zone near the Linq Hotel which is packed with unique shops and restaurants. In ‘N Out Burger is here too, if you like their burgers. Lots of street artists, including magicians, can been seen performing on the promenade. Different activities, like zipline, ferris wheel ride, etc can be done here too. We went back there twice, because it’s just nice to walk around here and window shop at different stores or just do people watching. 
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Linq Promenade in Las Vegas, NV

2. FACTORY STORES: Few of the fun stores we visited in Las Vegas that my kids absolutely enjoyed were M&M World, Coca-Cola Store, and Hershey’s Chocolate World. 

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Hershey’s Chocolate World, Las Vegas

M&M World and Coca-Cola Store are side by side near New York New York Hotel. And Hershey’s Chocolate World is right opposite of the other 2 stores. Fans or not-fans of these snacks and drinks must visit these exciting multi-floored shops just to check out what they have done inside and all the exciting items they sell. We ordered the international coke tray in the Coca-Cola store where you get to taste 16 different coke products from around the world for $15. 

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Our 16 flavors of coke from around the world in Coca-Cola Store in Las Vegas

3. THE PARK: Right beside New York New York Hotel and Casino, The Park is a delightful place to take a short stroll at night. It looked extra beautiful with Christmas lights and decorations everywhere.

4. SHOWS WE WATCHED: Las Vegas offers hundreds of different kinds of shows and performances all over the town. We caught 3 shows this time: David Copperfield’s Magic show in MGM Grand, Cirque du Soleil’s “O” in Bellagio, and MJ  Live – A Michael Jackson Tribute Concert in Stratosphere. You can book these tickets before you go or buy them at your hotel. Depending on the shows and nights, they can get booked pretty quickly.  

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Since we couldn’t take pictures inside the show

The only free show we’ve watched was Bellagio’s water fountain show, which takes place every half an hour and lasts for less than 5 minutes. There are other ones as well, which we couldn’t make time to go were 10 minutes free circus  performance inside Circus Circus, volcano by the Mirage, and many others. Almost every big hotel on the Strip offers some kind of free show or activities with little money. 

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Watershow in front of Bellagio, Las Vegas

 

5. CASINOS & HOTELS: New York New York was one of our favorites to visit for its cute little NY style alleys/streets like interiors. MGM Grand and Treasure Island was great too…nothing extraordinary. When I first visited Vegas 15 years ago, Caesar’s Palace was on my top list but this time, it didn’t appeal to me much. Nevertheless, it is still a great casino/hotel to check out. Bellagio’s Christmas decorations exceeded our expectations with its grandest and most creative ornaments. A whole section was dedicated to holiday celebration. From kids to adults, everyone was in awe after seeing Bellagio’s magnificent adorning statues, holiday figures, and colorful embellishments.

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Christmas decors inside Bellagio, NV

 

But to top everything, Venetian was our most favorite (no shocker). From outside, San Marco tower depicting Venice to inside Grand Canal Shoppes, gondola rides, and the whole nine yards…it’s breathtaking. Just being there feels like you are completely in a different world. Have some gelato while walking around the indoor mall.  

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Grand Canal Shoppe in Venetian, NV

6. RED ROCK CANYON: Taking a short trip to Red Rock Canyon is almost a must when you are in Vegas. Only half an hour from The Strip, this is a great outdoor heaven that you would not want to miss, especially if you have children. Please visit the right-sidebar to check out the things you can do in Red Rock Canyon. 

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Red Rock Canyon

Red Rock Canyon near Las Vegas – Getting out of The Strip

RED ROCK CANYON, LAS VEGAS: When you think about Las Vegas, for most of the tourists, you don’t really imagine it being a place where people go hiking or mountain climbing or go mingling with nature as much. Only half an hour ride from the heart of Las Vegas Blvd, Red Rock Canyon is a fantastic getaway from the city chaos and to appreciate the great outdoors. Locals love Las Vegas, not for the boulevard, but for the spectacular hills and valleys that it has to offer. 

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Red Rock Canyon, Las Vegas, NV

This is an open museum to enjoy some natural views, stunning landscapes, rock formations, and learn some facts on how Indian tribes lived here hundreds of years ago in the harsh environment. My kids definitely loved it and learned a lot on some local history, native Americans and their lifestyle, geology, and etc. According to our guide, the park has so many hiking trails that even if you hike everyday of the year in Red Rock Canyon, you still won’t have to repeat your trail. 

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Red Rock Canyon, Las Vegas, NV

I booked this trip online through Viator with Red Rock Canyon Discovery Tour weeks before reaching Las Vegas. For about $75 per person, we had this guided 3 hours of tour. We started around 9am and were dropped off by noon. There are other longer and different versions of Red Rock Canyon tours with different activities and prices. But for me and the kids, 3 hours out of The Strip was perfect and were back to the city right on time for lunch. 

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Red Rock Canyon, Las Vegas, NV

OUR HOTEL: We stayed in Stratosphere Hotel or The Strat this time. Red Rock Canyon Discovery Tour doesn’t have pick up from here. So we met up with the guide in front of Treasure Island on The Strip. 

TIME of TRAVEL: It was during the winter holiday of 2019 when we came to Las Vegas. Red Rock Canyon can be slightly colder than the city. Make sure to bring a hoodie or a heavy sweater and wear very comfortable shoes here. If you are coming in summer, bring plenty of water and maybe a hat. Since it’s out in the desert, I can imagine the extreme heat can cause some serious problems if you are not prepared, especially if you are planning to hike. 

EATING and SHOPPING: There isn’t really any place to eat in the conservation area that we’ve seen. Not sure if picnic is allowed here either. Officially camping is prohibited inside the park but climbers still do camp on the high hills when it gets dark. 

PLACES WE’VE VISITED: After the visitors center, we stayed on the Scenic Loop Drive to stop at different areas of the park. The roads are clearly marked with all the signs. Some places we stopped at are below:

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Red Rock Canyon, Las Vegas, NV

CALICO HILLS: This was our first and probably my favorite spot. Beautiful red rocks, small hills, canyons, and the sheer rugged beauty of this place is simply breathtaking. 

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Red Rock Canyon, Las Vegas, NV

HIGH POINT OVERLOOK: This was another look out point with vast landscape and small mountains. 

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Red Rock Canyon, Las Vegas, NV

WILLOW SPRINGS: There are few hidden falls and streams in the park which we didn’t get to see. Willow Springs is a point where a tiny stream flows in the woods. We also saw ancient handprints on a stone wall here. Other tribal hieroglyphics can be found few areas in this park. Our guide also gave us some insights how native Americans used different plants for different purposes and how they helped them survive. 

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Can you see some hand prints? Red Rock Canyon, NV

 

Aruba – One Happy and Windy Island

ARUBA, DUTCH CARIBBEAN: Located in the Southern Caribbean and just off of the coast of South America, Aruba, also known as “One Happy Island”, is one of the Dutch West Indies territories under kingdom of The Netherlands. The island is only 19 miles long and 6 miles across. This is one of the most popular destinations in the Caribbean (either by plane or by cruise) for its white sandy beaches, turquoise sea, warm water, natural landmarks, tropical climate, and lots of water/land activities for all ages. 

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Aruba’s stunning Baby Beach

Aruba is very dry and desert-like in some regions, therefore, you will see lots of cacti and rugged landscape. And the reason for it is that the island gets only about 18 inches of rain every year. Although it lies outside of the hurricane belt, this is a VERY windy island…just hold on to your hats, sunglasses, documents, plastic bottles or even your kids.

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And the breathtaking sunset in from Palm Beach, Aruba

 

Aruba is also one of the safest places to visit in the Caribbean. Use common sense and general cautions that you’d use when you go to a new place. Arubans can speak at least 3 or 4 languages, like Dutch, Spanish, English, and their local tongue, called Papiamento (which is spoken only in Dutch Antilles). 

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Picturesque downtown of Aruba

Here are some useful things to remember before you travel to Aruba. If you are a US citizen, you don’t need a visa for a short visit there. You can use your phone/laptop charger from USA/Canada without a converter in any hotel outlets here. Tap water here is perfectly drinkable. There are no currency exchange offices in the airport, but then again, this time I didn’t bother to exchange my USD to Florin at all. Because you can use USD everywhere, including restaurants, shops, taxis, public transportation, and etc. Major credit cards are also accepted in most places. Use sunscreens and hats when you are out in the sun. It gets very hot and humid from noon to late afternoon. Have plenty of water or juice in hands, especially for the kids. 

To get around, renting a car isn’t a bad idea…most of the tourist spots have good parking places, just have to learn the road signs. I have used both private taxis (make sure they have TX in their license plates and fix the price before you start the ride) and public minivans (minivans use same bus-stands as the big public buses, “Arubus” and costs $2 from Palm Beach to Oranjestad). Both are pretty safe and efficient. Just keep in mind, if you are going to take a bus from the downtown bus terminal, there are 2 sections. The big parking lot is for the big public buses. Since I took the public minivans, I came to the smaller parking lot. The minivans doesn’t say it’s anything outside…just ask the driver and hop in. 

TIME of TRAVEL: I was in Aruba during the long weekend of 4th of July. The island usually have tropical climate all year long. From a little before noon to late afternoon, the sun gets really strong…I had to come back to my hotel for a couple hours on the 3rd day after walking around downtown area for a few hours. It’s pleasant when you are at the beach because the gentle breeze makes it nice.

EATING and SHOPPING: Before I start this part, let me just say, Aruba is an expensive island to visit. I have visited Dominica Republic last year, but Aruba’s food and gifts are way more expensive than some of the other Caribbean islands. 

There are a lot of big American restaurant chains like McDonald’s, Taco Bell, Wendy’s, Pizza Hut, Subway, Pizza Hut, Hooters, Hard Rock Cafe, and etc. There are also all sorts of other international restaurants near the big hotels and resorts. I had a hard time finding a local Aruban restaurant in Palm Beach…my hotel concierge said there were none within walking distance from my hotel. I was told that I would have to take a taxi to go to those restaurants. So, I mostly enjoyed other international dishes. 

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Top: 3 different types of ceviche at Sweet Pepper and Bottom: my one and only breakfast in Aruba

I didn’t have all-inclusive intentionally, because from my previous experience I can’t really try local food that way. But food in Aruba is not cheap. For the only breakfast I had near my hotel, at Joe & Guisseppe, I paid about $12 for scrambled eggs with toast and potatoes and I paid more than $5 for my cup of morning coffee. That was insane paying $5 for a basic cup of black coffee. My first snack was at Piet’s Pier in Palm Beach where I sat down by the water to have some pina colada and hot wings. Palm Beach Promenade or Plaza mostly has international restaurants from Mexican, to Italian, to American, South American, and etc. There are tons of other restaurants and souvenir shops near Hard Rock Cafe.

Palm Beach Promenade is a great place to go for a meal or do some shopping. You will find small ice-cream places to big restaurants like Lazy Turtle and from local small vendors carts to big brand names for shopping here. It is a trendy place for all ages to shop and eat. My dinner on the second day was at Lazy Turtle, where they have ceviche, soups, salads, burgers, pasta, seafood, and all sorts of local and variety of international dishes. I had ceviche/tuna duo, plantain and coconut soup (an African recipe), and for the main course…blackened grouper fillets…WHAT? I was hungry and I paid $40 to satisfy my tummy. All of those were recommendations from the waitress and each was better than the others. I got to sit outside, devour my delicious food, and do some people watching while enjoying the island breeze at night. On my third day, I picked up some passion fruit gelato from Gelatissimo. And after walking around a little bit more, stopped at Sweet Pepper for an early dinner. Sweet Pepper is right above my previous night’s place, Lazy Turtle. It’s upstairs…may climb the stairs or take the elevator. Since I LOVE ceviche, I got a variety of ceviche platter for $19 along with some bread and butter and tapenade that came before the main course. And of course, my favorite pina colada on the side to rescue me from all the strolling in the heat. When I took the cave/beach excursion, we were taken to a local restaurant, called La Granja, for our lunch. Although the place had a lot to offer in their menu, we were served a plate with rice, rotisserie chicken, pork ribs, fries, and salad. Downtown Aruba, Oranjestad is also a fantastic place for any meal. My last lunch was at Lucy’s by the downtown marina where I had “Whoaa” fish. After lunch and walking around in the heat, I was tired and ready for another drink.  So, stopped at Iguana Joe’s Caribbean Bar and Grill for a mango and strawberry drink to cool off.

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My dinner at Lazy Turtles in Palm Beach, Aruba (Top: ceviche, Middle: coconut and plaintin soup, Bottom: grouper fillets)

The Old Main Street on the trolley ride route is a place for locals to shop in brand name stores. If you want to shop in downtown, the Renaissance Mall has mostly major western designer shops. Renaissance Marketplace was very empty when I was there on a Saturday afternoon. The Royal Plaza is also another hub for big European brand name stores. But for generic souvenir hunting…small vendors opposite of the Royal Plaza are great and reasonably priced. If you want to buy cigars, Captain Jack on the Palm Beach Promenade is a good place. Palm Beach Promenade also is a fun place to shop, especially at night when the place is flooded with all the tourists and all the stores are open. 

A very popular souvenir or gift item is to get anything with the phrase “Biba Dushi” which means “Sweet Life”. You can find t-shirts, mugs, hats, and etc with that phrase. Wood curved items, Dutch ceramics, are also very common and they are everywhere. Some mini-markets and airport stores sell Dutch/Gouda cheese wheels if you want to risk bringing those back home. Another popular item is anything that displays the Aruba’s famous divi tree…magnets, paintings, arts, and decors. I bought a small 4×6 oil canvas of the famous divi tree from a lady for $20, a bracelet, some Aruban aloe products, Caribbean coffee, Biba Dushi t-shirt, sweatshirt, stuffed flamingo…all from Palm Beach. 

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“Biba Dushi”, meaning “Sweet Life”, souvenirs in Aruba

MY HOTEL: I stayed in Brickell Bay Beach Club in Palm Beach, Aruba. While their location is great and the rooms are perfect, customer service is very slow and was OK. Every time I had to ask something or needed help, I had to wait for at least 10 minutes in the line for the front desk guy. They do want a $200 deposit when you check in which they give you back after checking out. Also, this is an adult only hotel…so, anyone below 18 years of age aren’t allowed to stay here. But there are lots of parking space if anyone plans to rent a private car. 

Other than that, the hotel is located 20 minutes drive from the airport and only 2/3 minutes walk from the Palm Beach. Palm Beach Promenade is also about 5 minutes walk from the hotel, which was great, because the promenade is an absolutely fun place to hang out for shopping or meals or just to feel the vibe.

PLACES I’VE VISITED: With its laid-back and islandic vibe, Aruba is an appealing place for relaxing or taking part in any activities. I was in Aruba for 2 1/2 days. I know it wasn’t enough to really enjoy all the beauty that the island has to offer, but I loved whatever I could see and do in that short time there. 

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Colorful retail buses in Aruba where they sell variety of items

There are tons of pristine beaches here that tourists can explore and they are all beautiful…some more than the others. Some of the places that I didn’t get a chance to visit but would recommend are, Flamingo Island and De Palm Island as day-trip. For swimming, paddle boating, kayaking, snorkeling, diving, or water activities, beaches like Divi, Druif, Arashi, Surfside, Mamlok, and Natural Pool are supposed to be the top ones. There are some walking tours in downtown but I did it all by myself and it’s pretty easy. Wilhelmina Park is well known among the locals and tourists too. A statue of Anne Frank is located in this park. There is an old Dutch Windmill in Palm Beach that I could see from my hotel room, but didn’t get time to visit it. And if you are bringing your kids to Aruba, I’m sure they will enjoy the Butterfly Farm, Donkey Sanctuary, or Bubali Bird Sanctuary. And if you like hiking, Hooiberg or the Haystack would be a great place to climb couple hundred steps. Finally, if you are into museums and history, the Aruba Aloe Factory, Historical Museum and Archaeological Museum are probably worth visiting. There are couple submarine tours that you can book from downtown which only runs at 11 AM and 12 PM every day. For activities, jeep safari, submarine tour, ATV tours/4-wheeling tours, sailing, snorkeling, and scuba are pretty common. 

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Thousand years old tribal art in Ayo Rock Park in Aruba

Just to give you some ideas on distance from Palm Beach to other areas of the island (by the way, the airport is located closer to downtown/Oranjestad):

To the airport – about 25 minutes

To Oranjestad – 25 minutes

To Eagle Beach – 10 minutes

To Divi or Druif Beach – 10 minutes

To Surfside Beach – about 25 minutes (closer to Oranjestad)

While I couldn’t see many of the places or do a lot of the things that people recommend to do in Aruba, below are some of the places I did visit here:

  1. PALM BEACH: Palm Beach area is popular for its high-rise resorts and hotels. It is home of variety of water activity operators, piers, restaurants, beach bars, and of course, lots of palm trees.  If you want to enjoy white sand, calm water, and a spectacular sunset, this is the place. There are 3 piers on this beach and Piet’s Pier is the smallest one from where some of the sunset catamarans and few other boat tours leave. The water is quite calm here…makes it perfect for swimming, sailing, or floating. There are lots of water activities that you can do in Palm Beach. If you are a photographer, sunset on this beach is pretty amazing which I got to enjoy on my second day on this island. 
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Palm Beach, Aruba

This was only 2 minutes walk from my hotel. I checked in at around 3pm and this beach was my first place to explore. There is a bus stop right around the corner of the beach, if you are planning to use public transportation. 

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Piet’s Pier in Palm Beach, Aruba during susnet

2. SUNSET CATAMARAN CRUISE: I booked this mini cruise online with Viator 3 days before I left for Aruba. It was $60 and supposed to be for 2 hours where only drinks were included and was supposed to start at 5:30pm. A company called Red Sail operated this and when I went to our meeting point at Piet’s Pier in Palm Beach, I was told the time changed to 6:30pm and it’s for 3 hours. I went back, walked around near Hard Rock cafe a bit and came back to the pier around 6pm to board. The lady at the dock looked at her customer list, said my name was not there, and started helping others to board. When I said I already paid, have a reference number and that I wanted to speak to her supervisor…she called her boss while I had to wait for about half an hour for them to figure things out. I don’t know if it was Viator or Red Sail who messed up my booking, but was slightly frustrating. But eventually, I got on board and we sailed off.

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Our DJ in the sunset catamaran cruise in Aruba

The whole purpose of getting on a catamaran sunset cruise was to actually enjoy the sunset and to cruise around. First of all, the boat was small and cramped with too many passengers. And after about half an hour of sailing, when we came near California Lighthouse, we just sat there for the whole sunset which followed by a 4th of July celebration dinner. Yes, that was the only best part of this cruise, that we got a surprise dinner with our price, which they usually don’t include. The price only includes bottomless drink and a live DJ.

I have been to these sunset cruises or catamarans in Mexico and in Dominican Republic, but those are more fun where people aren’t inside your personal bubble and have more space to breath. And you would actually be cruising the whole time. The music added some fun to this ride…some passengers were even dancing. And the food was ok. Another nice part that after dinner, our captain took us near the Renaissance hotel for the 4th of July fireworks, which we got to watch from our boat. 

3. PALM BEACH PROMENADE/PLAZA: It was only 9:30pm when we got off the catamaran. I was tired from my previous red-eye flight. But fun things are only starting in Aruba at that time. From the Piet’s Pier in Palm Beach, it took me about 5 minutes to walk to the promenade. This is the heart and soul of the Palm Beach. Tons of restaurants, bars, brand name shops, local boutiques, vendor kiosks, and souvenir places are here. The street is lined with big chain hotels and resorts. I was there every night during my stay. It’s an exciting place to hang out after dark…although may seem very dead during the day time with no one there and when all the stores and eateries are closed. 

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Paseo Herencia alley in Palm Beach Promenade in Aruba

The plaza has striking 3-level outdoor mall which is the largest of its kind with lots of shops, restaurants, and entertainment options. Paseo Herencia has a gorgeous fountain surrounded by international and local retailers and restaurants that features nighttime water and musical show at every hour starting from 7:30pm to 9:30pm.

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Light and musical show at night in Palm Beach Plaza

Go inside Texas de Brazil pathway/alley to enter the outdoor shopping plaza. It is a cozy place to walk around, do window shopping, or sit down and enjoy any drinks or meals. 

4. BEACH and CAVE EXCURSION: This day-trip was also booked with Viator few days before my flight to Aruba. It was $74 per person for 6 1/2 hours of guided tour (by a company called Pelican Aruba) in an open-air bus. The tour starts at 9:30am and lunch was included along with hotel pick-up/drop-off. Our guide and driver, James, was an extremely funny and knowledgeable man. We were supplied with cold water, punch, soft and hard drinks whenever we wanted. 

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Baby Beach in Aruba

This was definitely an excellent trip and a nice way of exploring the island’s landscape. The bus passes thru lots of neighborhoods and small villages. It is a scenic ride over all…you may even spot a donkey or two on the road. It was a relaxed way to see the island in a short time, except that they advertises we would go to Arashi Beach, but we weren’t taken there. The trip ended with Baby Beach and I was dropped of at my hotel by 4:30pm. 

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Driving by these cacti during our excursion in Aruba

Below are the places where we were taken to in this tour. Before stopping anywhere, we drove by Mamlok Beach which is famous for the ruins of an old shipwreck from Aruba’s last major hurricane. 

a. CALIFORNIA LIGHTHOUSE: This was our first stop of this trip. The lighthouse, built in 1914, is located on the northernmost tip of the island. Surrounded by blue water, this is a quiet and calm place to visit anytime of the day. We spent only 10 minutes here. There isn’t much to do, unless you climb up the stairs with a fee. There were some small carts and a bright colored bus selling fresh coconut water, other drinks and snacks.

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California Lighthouse in Aruba

b. ALTO VISTA CHAPEL: After a scenic ride from the lighthouse, we arrived at Alto Vista Chapel in a pretty isolated area. This is a small but historic chapel on the northern side of the island surrounded by lots of tall cacti. The altar is pretty simple and modest. And the surroundings were very peaceful. Again, not much to do here…we had 10 minutes to spend and that was a good amount of time to look around the chapel. 

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Alto Vista Chapel in Aruba

c. NATURAL BRIDGE: Third stop was the Natural Bridge where we spent about 15 minutes. The original and bigger natural bridge collapsed in 2005 but a smaller one is there beside the one that collapsed. The newer bridge is there for visitors to enjoy and to walk on the bridge. Do use caution to avoid any accidents.

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Natural Bridge in Aruba

Water color is darker in this part of the island because the ocean is very deep here. There are also sharks in this water. There is a natural crack beside the new bridge where visitors aren’t allowed to go to…follow any danger signs and listen to your guide while visiting this area. 

Ruins of which once was called Bushiribana Gold Mine is a few minutes of drive from the Natural Bridge. We didn’t stop there. But saw people climbing and exploring the surrounding area.  

d. AYO ROCK FORMATION: Our fourth stop was Ayo Rock Formation site where we spent about 15-20 minutes. This is like a very small version of the Jumbo rock in Joshua Tree NP in California. The park houses lots of large boulders, tall cacti, and few walking trails. You can explore these rocks (or even climb them) to get a better view of the area. The guide showed us a protective cave-like small place where you can see thousand years old tribal arts under a rock. Those arts and symbols are still a mystery to the locals since no one could decipher them yet. 

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Ayo Rock Formation in Aruba

e. ARIKOK NATIONAL PARK: After our lunch at La Granja, we arrived at Arikok National Park which takes up about one-third of the whole island. This is a place to explore Aruba’s natural treasures. You can see ancient lava and limestone formation in this park. There are few hiking trails if you want to experience Aruba’s flora, fauna, unique geological formations, and historical sites. The entrance fee to the park was included in our ticket. We spent about a little less than half an hour in and around the cave. 

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After entering Arikok National Park in Aruba

The only place we got to see in Arikok NP was Guadiriki Cave. This was a highlight of this tour where we could go inside the cave. After climbing a few stairs we went inside the not-so-claustrophobic and dark cave. But it was thrilling to scout around different sections of Guadiriki Cave, even the parts where small bats live. 

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Guadiriki Cave in Arikok National Park, Aruba

The cave is famous for the natural light that pours in through openings in the cave roof. There is another cave in Arikok NP, like Fontein Cave, which we didn’t get a chance to see. 

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Guadiriki Cave in Arikok National Park, Aruba

f. BABY BEACH: Our last stop of the tour was Baby Beach, which is a man-made lagoon on the southern end of the island. It is called Baby Beach because of its shallow depth of only 5 feet of water at any point and for remarkably calm beach without any current. Therefore, Baby Beach makes a prime destination for families with small children. You can walk out for a long distance and still touch the sea bottom here. This is also a great location for snorkeling. Certain spots of this beach has the dangerous rip current (those spots are specifically marked and tourists aren’t supposed to go there). 

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Baby Beach…a man-made lagoon in Aruba

On clear days you can see Venezuelan mountains…Venezuela is only 19 miles across the ocean from Aruba. 

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Baby Beach in Aruba

5. EAGLE BEACH: This is supposed to be one of the top 10 beaches in the world and was voted as #1 Caribbean beach by a USA Today survey. With its calm crystal-clear blue water, light waves, and soft white sand, this is a perfect place for relaxation. Additionally, taking leisure walks is an ideal activity here because of its long stretched sandy beach. To me, the highlight of this beach and the ONLY reason I went there was to photograph the famous divi-divi tree of Aruba. 

Under a Divi tree Eagle Beach in Aruba

Under a Divi tree Eagle Beach in Aruba

This pair of divi-divi in Eagle Beach is quite famous where people only come here to take pictures with these. The constant trade wind from the north-east shapes Aruba’s national tree divi-divi to always point to the south-west direction. It has become an iconic sign of Aruba and its image are on lot of the souvenir items as well. 

The famous Divi tree pair in Eagle Beach in Aruba

The famous Divi tree pair in Eagle Beach in Aruba

I took a taxi from Palm Beach to Eagle Beach couple hours before sunset, which costs about $9 for one way. Just keep in mind, on your way back you may have to walk to a hotel or call for a taxi, since there are no taxi stand near the beach. My agenda was to stay here until the sunset and take some shots of the divi-divi tree. But after waiting under the sun for more than half an hour, I couldn’t take the heat anymore and had to head back to my hotel. 

6. ORANJESTAD: My 3rd and last day in Aruba was set aside to roam around its downtown. Oranjestad is the main hub for many resorts, hotels, casinos, expensive brand name shops, and finally the cruise port. This is Aruba’s original shopping mecca for its tourists with vast selections of shopping venues. LG Smith Boulevard is the main street in downtown and everything is on or around this street, including Renaissance Mall & Marketplace, The Parliament, the marina, and The Royal Plaza. If you plan to go to Surfside Beach, going from the downtown is easier, since it’s closer from here (only 2 km). Also, look for the blue Paardenbaai Horse sculptures when you are walking around Oranjestad…there are multiple of them scattered throughout the downtown area. 

These blue horses are everywhere in Oranjestad, Aruba

These blue horses are everywhere in Oranjestad, Aruba

I left at 10:30 in the morning and was back In the hotel by 4 PM. I didn’t go to the park in downtown where Anna Franks statue is located. To go to downtown, I took the public minivan for $2 one way from the Palm Beach bus stop and I was in downtown in less than half an hour. Bus stop in Oranjestad is centrally located and very short distance from most of the major spots. 

Some souvenirs shop opposite of Royal Plaza in Oranjestad, Aruba

Some souvenirs shop opposite of Royal Plaza in Oranjestad, Aruba

a. TROLLEY RIDE: From the bus terminal, it was only 2-3 minutes walk to the cruise terminal where I got on to this trolley. This is a free double-decker hop-on/hop-off bus ride around the downtown area. These are battery operated trams that run very slowly that passes thru some main tourist spots and some not so popular among tourists spots. The street bus passes thru the Archeological Museum, the old Main Street with shops, some small plazas, hotels, and smaller alleys.

Downtown trolley ride in Oranjestad, Aruba

Downtown trolley ride in Oranjestad, Aruba

It’s a short, 45 minutes ride maybe and has a 20 minutes break at a small square. I got off at Plaza Daniel Leo on our way back to the terminal. 

b. PLAZA DANIEL LEO: There isn’t much to do in this plaza but I had to stop here to admire the Dutch/Flemish looking architecture in this square. Most of those are shops. You can find a blue horse sculpture here by the water fountain. Opposite of the plaza is where the famous European store Zara located. There is also a tourist info booth in this plaza, where I got my free Aruba street map from and asked a few questions about surroundings. 

Plaza Daniel Leo in Oranjestad, Aruba

Plaza Daniel Leo in Oranjestad, Aruba

c. RENAISSANCE MALL: If you cross the street from Plaza Daniel Leo, you are at the Renaissance Mall, an elite and trendy shopping mall beside Renaissance Resort & Casino. There are few restaurants and a casino in the mall. 

d. “I LOVE ARUBA” SIGN: If you just walk straight to the mall and keep walking straight you’ll come out of the mall and to the main street. A left turn from would take you to this I Love Aruba sign. This is located right next to Renaissance Mall, in front of the Parliament of Aruba, and across from the marina. 

I Love Aruba in Oranjestad, Aruba

I Love Aruba in Oranjestad, Aruba

e. PARLIAMENT of ARUBA: As I walked by the I Love Aruba sign, I came in front of the Parliament of Aruba. I am not sure if publics are allowed inside the building. It’s a simple building with a statue outside. Not much to do here, I kept walking towards the opposite of the Renaissance Marketplace to see what’s on the other side…didn’t go too far and saw the Historical Museum of Aruba. From there, just turned around, crossed the street to go to the marketplace. 

f. RENAISSANCE MARKETPLACE: It was really empty when I was there with most of the stores being closed…maybe because it’s like the Palm Beach Promenade…dead during day but crowded with tourists at night. It has one side surrounded by the marina. One of many other places in downtown for shopping, dining, and entertainment. The architecture itself of this mall is modern and glassy.

Renaissance Marketplace in Oranjestad, Aruba

Renaissance Marketplace in Oranjestad, Aruba

g. RENAISSANCE MARINA: This is the official name, I think, but most people probably know it by just the downtown marina. Taking an easy stroll by the water is what I did here. There are few spots I found by the marina to be very photogenic. 

Walking by Renaissance Marina in Oranjestad, Aruba

Walking by Renaissance Marina in Oranjestad, Aruba

h. ROYAL PLAZA: After my lunch at Lucy’s by the marina (which is across the street from Renaissance Mall, I walked a couple blocks to reach a line of souvenirs stores. They were right opposite of the Royal Plaza…another trendy shopping plaza and a paradise for exquisite shoppers. The Royal Plaza consists of 3 distinct pink and white Dutch-Caribbean style victorian building with multi-level experience of shopping and dining. Go inside the plaza, which is basically an outdoor mall and walk around to do some window shopping…heck, if you have money to spare, this would be the place for those bills. 

Royal Plaza in Oranjestad, Aruba

Royal Plaza in Oranjestad, Aruba

This was a great way to end the downtown tour, since the bus terminal is right there. I was back in the hotel by 5 and off to Palm Beach Promenade for a lazy walk and dinner. 

IF I VISIT ARUBA AGAIN: If I visit Aruba for the second time, I would definitely stay in Palm Beach again. While public buses are very good, next time I would definitely rent a car since parking in all the touristic places are pretty good. And since Aruba is a small island with tons of beaches, having a car is much easier to hop beaches and not worry about bus or getting a taxi. Next time, I definitely want to try some Aruban food, which I couldn’t this time. Again, having a rental car would make it a breeze. 

 

 

 

 

Florida Parks: The Best Way to Explore the Florida Keys

Lots of visitors to the Florida Keys rave about the food, the nightlife, and the welcoming atmosphere, but the best way to experience the Keys is through Florida’s state and national parks. These are some of the most beautiful and unique public lands in the continental U.S. People travel the world over to swim, snorkel, and fish here. Read on to find out why.

Bahia Honda State Park

Located on Bahia Honda Key north of Key West, this park is best known for two of its beaches. In fact, you might even recognize them from photos. One’s on the Atlantic Ocean side of the island and one’s on the Florida Bay side of the island. Beach equipment rental is easy at the island concession stand, which also offers food service and a small gift shop. Visitors enjoy hiking, fishing, biking, as well as birdwatching. You can pitch a tent or park your RV in designated areas, with reservations; marina slips are also offered for overnight docking. No trip to Bahia Honda State Park would be complete without snorkeling – reserve your spot on the snorkeling tour of Looe Key Marine Sanctuary in advance by phone or online.

Fort Zachary Taylor State Park

Get a real feel for American history while enjoying some great outdoor activities at this landmark fort on the southern part of Key West. Tours of Fort Zachary Taylor are offered every day. Learn more about how American troops served during the Civil War and the Spanish American War by walking the same paths, looking through the same gun ports, and watching re-enactors bring history to life. Nature trails offer hiking and scenic views; bring a bike for the bike trails. Swimming at the sandy beach here is popular; you can also rent umbrellas, beach chairs, and snorkeling gear. The picnic areas here have grills, so consider stopping by a grocery store for supplies on your way in; if you’d rather let someone else do the cooking, visit the park’s cafe for light refreshments in the shade. If you have a fishing license, there are also designated fishing spots here.

Biscayne National Park

Another of the Florida Keys’ parks with expansive underwater acreage, this one is located at the northernmost part of the Keys. Initially created to preserve the last of the undeveloped Keys, today, tourism is the primary draw. See the best of Biscayne National Park on a guided tour from the Dante Fascell Visitor Center. View some of the historic shipwrecks that are part of the Maritime Heritage Trail and the colorful marine life that’s grown up around them. Kayaks and canoes are available for rent, and guests can take a self-paced tour around the key, exploring mangrove-sheltered shallows. The park’s shorelines are home to wading birds and shore birds, as well as dolphins and turtles, so be sure to pack binoculars. Don’t miss Jones Lagoon and Hurricane Creek. Feeling adventurous? You can camp at Biscayne National Park, too, at Boca Chita and Elliott Key. These campsites are pack in/pack out, and offer trails and swimming; however, the amenities are pretty basic. And be sure to try the fishing here. The area is especially well-known for bonefish, grouper, tarpon, and spiny lobster. Seize the Day Charters  can ensure any required licensing is in place for a relaxing trip.

Florida’s state and national parks offer visitors a unique and up-close look at the Sunshine State’s natural beauty. From snorkeling and diving to fishing, birdwatching, kayaking, and more, it’s easy to immerse yourself among the plants and animals that make the Florida Keys such a special place to visit in these parks.

 

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