Time to check some bucket list boxes – Sydney – Days 130-136

First time in Australia for Mike and the kids….check…..New continent….check…..Opera house…..check…..Bondi beach….check.

Australia was for the kids. There’s a Netflix show called “Izzy Koala” and our daughter, Isabella, dreams of being a koala rescuer too. When we started talking about the trip, her little brain came up with the idea that we could visit Izzy’s koala sanctuary. Unfortunately, Izzy Koala does not take visitors but the idea of a stop in Oz was stuck in my head. Since I’d been to Australia already, Michael was going to be hard-pressed to convince me to come on a separate trip just to Australia so adding it to this world trip itinerary seemed like a good idea. We were off to the land of koalas, kangaroo and shrimp on the barbie; the first stop was Sydney.

It was my turn to get the family virus (the one Izzie caught in Colombia) and, for me, it manifested as an infected eye. We had to go to an optometrist for a proper diagnosis and medicine. It took several days to go away and I had to wear my glasses the whole time we were in Sydney – no contact lenses and very few photos of me from this leg. It drove me crazy! So day 1 in Sydney involved an optometrist, school at the library, a walk through the Botanical Gardens and the obligatory visit to the Opera House. It’s one of those world landmarks that does not disappoint (FYI, in person, it isn’t really white).

On day 2, we decided to head to the beach. Mike was feeling better and he felt sad that he’d missed so much Hawaii beach time. We chose Manly beach which seemed to have all the magical ingredients: harbour ferry ride, expansive surf beach, walk to a more secluded snorkel beach and an ocean pool to explore. And we did it all! As we rode the ferry to Manly, we wondered why we don’t live in Sydney. Public transit in the form of a ferry boat always seems so civilized and relaxing. We arrived in the beach suburb of Manly and did school in the library where Isabella did a writing assignment about sea turtles. We opted not to swim with the surfers at Manly (they have big signs warning about rips) and instead walked to nearby Shelly Beach which is part of Cabbage Tree Bay, a protected marine reserve. It took a while to convince the kids to snorkel (in the colder than Hawaii water) but it was fun to putter around and see neat creatures right from the beach.

Sydney has a pretty wild coastline so they’ve built these “ocean pools” at most of the beaches which are publically accessible and often free. They are ocean-fed unheated pools that allow Sydneysiders to swim without the full force of the surf, the sharks or the jellyfish. They are also very photogenic. Mike and the kids tried a few of them and I snapped the pictures.

Michael’s little sister Katie has come to Australia while we’re here. Our itinerary might have initially inspired her visit but she went ahead and convinced two friends to meet her here for an Australian adventure. She was in Sydney at the same time as us and, we met up to go to the Taronga Zoo (we’ll get to spend more time with her when we head to Tasmania together). The animals of the Taronga Zoo have an amazing view of the Sydney Harbour and the setting is probably the most memorable part of the place for me. I also loved seeing the chimpanzees who had a huge enclosure and were very animated when we visited.

Isabella will tell you that the Koala Encounter was the best part. It is illegal to pay to hold and cuddle Koalas in the state of NSW but the zoo does offer what they call “close encounters” with them. You are allowed to go in the cage and see them up close. Isabella learned of this optional zoo add-on and there was no convincing her not to spend her allowance on it. The ticket was for up to 4 people and she asked Aunt Katie, friend Yukari and luckily her sister to join her (this time not asking Julie to pay). Do others find their older child constantly trying to save her money by convincing her younger sister to spend her money? Isabella told me that this was the best day of her life so I guess she has no regrets about cleaning out her wallet. We were also amused by the news in Sydney from a few days before our visit, the lions had actually escaped. Don’t worry, they were recaptured without incident.

The Potts Point neighbourhood where we stayed in Sydney was also interesting. I chose it because it was close to the CBD and I read that foodies gravitate there for new, interesting dining. And the dining was great with lots of yummy restaurants that didn’t break the bank. Apparently, this was a “sketchier” area of Sydney but the pandemic wiped out a bunch of the dodgy bars. It still seemed a bit rough around the edge but the proximity to the city and great food worked well for us.

We chose to save Bondi Beach for our last full day in Sydney. We took a bus to Bronte Beach and did a 2 km walk to Bondi which made for an impressive arrival at the iconic place. We watched the surfers and Mike took the kids for a swim. The kids tried out their new bathing suits and got new sunburn lines.

Now we’re off to Tasmania.

Where we stayed (5 words or less):

  • Holiday Inn Sydney Potts Point: Great transit access and breakfast

By the numbers:

  • Types of eye drops currently in our first aid kit: 3 – don’t ask, so tired of eye-related infections
  • Cost for the koala encounter at the zoo: $30 – Isabella used her own money
  • Ice Creams: 9 – in addition to our normal gelatos, the hotel had free all-you-could-eat-ice cream for the kids 24/7
  • Cost of taxi from the airport: $70 – we must have got ripped off
  • Cost of Paige’s hack bus route to the airport: <$10 – I still have no idea how she pulled it off

Halloween in Bogota – Days 121-125

Children sitting in the Bogota sign

We arrived in Bogota recognizing that the Colombian leg of our trip was ending.  Our last 5 days consisted of doing some slow living (i.e. laundry), watching the Raptors and getting schoolwork done.  We did no research on Bogota ahead of time and felt like we had no real objectives to cross off. When it was all said and done, we watched some Raptors, we had our first doctor’s visit and the kids got to experience Halloween, “Bogota-style“.

Continue reading

Zona Cafetera – Here we come Juan Valdez! – Days 119-120

It did not seem right to visit Colombia without visiting the Zona Cafetera (the Coffee Axis), so we added a quick 2-day trip to the itinerary. Although the distance did not seem far, I knew that this might be a long drive so we splurged for a private driver from Medellin to the Hacienda Venecia near Manizales. We were picked up in Medellin at 9:30 and we were glad that we’d had a good breakfast because, once we cleared the outskirts of the city, there were not a lot of places to stop. The drive was very scenic as we drove through green mountains and fields of Avocado trees (a crop that is an expanding Colombian export). I kept waiting to see coffee and kept asking the driver “cafe?” as I pointed in distance. But he kept responding “aguacate”. It was not until we were very close to our destination that he smiled and pointed to a hill saying “cafe!”.

Continue reading

Medellin – Bring on the Tours – Days 113-118

Two children riding the cable cars in Medellin

We arrived in Medellin (pronounced Medejin as Julie keeps correcting us) with our sunburnt bodies. We settled in the area of Laureles, as Paigey decided that was the place to stay. She found a “hipster-ish” Airbnb that worked for us perfectly (it had laundry which we desperately needed). Our goal was to spend a full week settled in one place doing some slow living and some schoolwork. We filled all the drawers with our freshly laundered clothes. We filled the fridge with actual groceries (yep, we bought butter) and not just snacks. We even signed up for an NBA league pass to watch Raptors’ basketball in Colombia. We made ourselves a comfortable home base.

Laureles was a great place for us to stay as they had restaurants aplenty, wide sidewalks, old people walking dogs and dangerous ledges for children to walk on and fall off. Our accommodation was adjacent to a primary school which reminded us how much less we taught our kids during a school day. The only real drawback to the area was its distance to the metro. We ended up splitting our time between taxis, walking and the occasional metro. The metro is fantastic and we highly recommend it. First, it is extremely inexpensive with decent routes running north and south allowing you to cover decent distances without sitting in gridlock (and they have it in Medellin). For us, the highlight was that the metro also includes access to the cable car routes that are spread across the city. It allowed the family to experience areas of the city outside of the affluent centre. It grounded us a little bit and prompted us to learn more about these more remote comunas.

Based on our learning from Cartagena, we started with a tour to get our bearings and teach the children about the city’s history. We lucked out as our free walking tour was one of the slickest productions we have been a part of. First, the company made sure that groups were manageable for the guide (i.e. under 20 people). Second, we had a passionate guide. He was a professional and his storytelling was next-level. He would address everyone by their name (no we didn’t have name tags, and he remembered both our children’s names). Since we knew nothing really about Medellin, the guide ensured the tour wasn’t focused on narcos but rather on the history of his city. Before the tour, we were warned that the children might see some things they might find disturbing as the tour would not gloss over the challenges facing the city. They didn’t know we had seen Hastings Street, so the homelessness and substance abuse was not foreign to us. Pablo, our guide, expressed frustration that some of the areas we visited were actually on an upswing before the Pandemic. Using Plaza Botero as an example he explained how shelter closures during the pandemic seem to have led to a massive increase in street vendors and homelessness in what was before a completely public space.

We then went on a mini binge with tours over the next few days. During our tour to the neighbouring area of Guatape, we realized that large, organized tours are NOT for us. People missing meeting times by half an hour cripples you with kids. But we did acknowledge the pros as we could have not done it cheaper than what we were charged. And some of the tourist trap activities (like a 30-minute boat ride on a lake we would never have done on our own) can turn out to be a blast. But the part that killed us was a group of 5 college frat guys being….college frat guys! I know I sound old, but really how were they gassed climbing up the 695 steps while the kids didn’t stop or break a sweat? It was a long day, we made no friends but the climb and the greenery around Guatape made it a worthwhile day trip.

Paige paragraph below – another one of our blog content compromises!

Comuna 13 is the most popular tourist stop in Medellin. We did not even really know what we were going to see when we met our guide at the Metro Station and boarded a “local bus” (that was full of tourists) and headed up the side of the mountain. Medellin is built in a valley and the metro and main roads run through the bottom of the valley. Neighbourhoods or “comunas” are often built on the sides of the mountain and so people take cable cars, buses or walk to reach the heights where they live. In the 1990s, comuna 13 was likely the most dangerous place in Medellin and very poor. It was built on a very steep part of the mountain and was hard to reach. More recently, the city built a series of outdoor covered escalators – a project designed to integrate the remote neighbourhood with the city and make it easier for people to get around. But they never expected that this would become a tourist attraction! About 20 years ago, the first guides started bringing people to this area showing them the escalators and the spray-painted murals that surround it. Break dancers also perform in the area displaying the community’s link to hip-hop culture. After visiting comuna 13, you realize that the guides are as surprised as the tourists that people are coming to see where they live which is still dangerous (our guide admits businesses continue to pay protection money to gangs). But we realized that the reason to go to comuna 13 is the guides themselves. We met someone who grew up in a very dangerous place yet managed to not only survive but to go to university, learn English and improve his life. Our guide told us of his father being shot for refusing to pay a 5th group demanding protection money but he also told us that he is a guide today because he makes more money taking tourists around than being a teacher (which is his passion). All in all, it was a sobering look into what Medellin was like in the 1990s and 2000s and what it is like today.

The family really had a blast in Medellin as there was more than enough to keep us entertained. Hopefully, we embrace this idea of staying put for longer periods of time! But then again we’re off on another 2-day jaunt. Bring on the coffee plantations.

Where we stayed (5 words or less);

By the numbers:

  • Ice Cream Consumed: 4 – 1 Paleta, 1 ice cream in the shape of a pig, 1 frozen yogurt with excessive toppings, 1 popsicle (mike dropped his and got another)
  • Visits to the grocery store: 4
  • Rappi ordered: 2 – Yep, I have never used Uber Eats at home, but I’ve used the Colombian version twice
  • Number of steps climbed at Guatape: 695
  • Number of songs requested on the boat cruise: 1 – La Bicicleta by Shakira and Carlos Vives of course!

What we ate (this is Paigey’s section and I’m mad it is being pushed as a go forward section)

  • Crepes y Waffles – We’ve decided it is like a Jack Astors but with tasty food
  • Different kinds of street food tried: 6 (empanadas, doughnuts, chicken empanada, bunuelos, potatoes, potato chips)
  • Bandeja Paisa – I was worried about my gut, but this plate of protein and calories was surprisingly tasty

Ciao for now,

Mike

Tayrona National Park (but not really) – Days 110-112

Family buying bananas on side of the road in jungle area

If you’ve had 4 days of warm, wet weather, why not go someplace with warmer and wetter weather?! We had a great intro to Colombia with our stay in Cartagena but since we had booked things ahead of time, we were on the move! Our destination was a mini-resort hotel just outside of Tayrona National Park at the base of the Sierra Nevada mountains. It was our first internal transit day and we were anxious to see if we still had those backpacker skills from years ago.

Continue reading

Cartagena – Finally an Airplane – Days 105-109

Flight #1

We have finally reached the part of our trip where we go somewhere international! We wanted to explore parts of our own country before exploring other destinations. But… oh how excited I am to finally get on a plane again after 3 years of the pandemic. When we decided to come to Colombia, we really knew very little about the country.  We’d heard that Cartagena was cool and we’d watched Narcos – that was about it.  

With Colombia, we did not follow my own rule and booked a whirlwind 21 days where we’ll stay in 5 different places.  Oops….  But the guidebooks suggested way too many cool places to visit.  We decided to start our adventure in Cartegena which we knew was a little more touristy and hopefully a little bit less culture shock for the girls.

Continue reading

Columbus – Isabella’s Birthday Present – Day 85-86 (A post by Isabella)

My favourite tv show is called “Secrets of the Zoo” and it takes place in the Colombus Zoo and the Wilds (two different zoos). The show is about zookeepers and vets who take care of the animals. I said to mom and dad “because we are going to the USA, can we go to the Columbus Zoo?”. They said “No” and I actually believed them. Secretly, mom, dad and Julie were planning a secret birthday present for me. After we left Indianapolis, I thought that we were driving to Cleveland but really dad was driving to my zoos. Mom and dad thought both of the zoos were in Columbus when they booked a hotel there for two nights but when they looked at google maps, they realized the Wilds was 1 1/2 hours further (and out of the way). That meant we had to drive through Columbus to get there and mom thought I would notice from the backseat that we were not driving through Cleveland! Dad thought I would not. Guess who was right? Dad…. I missed all the signs and was doing my homework in the backseat instead.

When we approached the Wilds, mom started to film me.

Continue reading

The big tourist destinations of Madison & Indianapolis – Day 82-84

Family at a mock sports broadcasting studio

We got two more pictures of state capitol buildings by stopping in Madison and Indianapolis. One might ask, why go to Madison at all? The answer for us was logistics. We simply wanted to break a ten-hour drive into two five-hour legs. And on the map, Madison is about the midway point between Minneapolis and Indianapolis. Our real goal was getting to Indianapolis because Paigey had read about a children’s museum there and thought it could be a good place for homeschooling. If you have kids and they aren’t in school, this is the spot for you and is completely worthy of a road trip. We went during a weekday in September and essentially had the museum to ourselves (it was too early in the school year for field trips). I’m not exaggerating, at some of the live demonstrations, our kids were the only 2 people to show up so they got to learn from the scientists one on one. This day, we didn’t even have to pretend to be good teachers.

Continue reading

Minneapolis and the Golden Gophers- Days 78-81

Two kids standing in front of inflatable mascot at a football game

It was an early departure from Grasslands National Park as we anticipated an eight-hour day of driving. We had not really planned on it but we were changing our route and heading back to Toronto through the northern states. Fortunately, we had picked up Julie’s passport the day before which allowed us to take this “southerly” route and avoid a repeat of the drive between Winnipeg and Nipigon. Julie was pumped as she was getting a new country and Isabella was excited as she figured out Olive Gardens are more plentiful in the US than in Canada.

So there we were at 8:30 in the morning somewhere on the Saskatchewan / US border (Morgan to be exact) waiting for US border control to open up the border. Talk about ignorance on my part! I just assumed the border was open all hours of the day (as I did not listen to Paige who said it might be closed). But we had to wait an hour for the gate to be opened up and for us to be allowed through.

Continue reading

Pleasant Surprise – Grasslands National Park – Day 77

We woke up and left the dinosaur campground as we continued to make our way back east.  We were on the road by 8 am as we knew that we had a really long ride ahead of us (6 or more hours today). 

We drove to Medicine Hat for breakfast and ate at a little cafe that I had found online.  Then we went to the Medalta clay factory as a little diversion since we had such a long drive ahead of us. The clay factory is over 100 years old and they have staff working onsite using historic techniques, moulds and glazes making reproduction pieces like Stoneware bowls, urns and crocks. I so much wanted to buy a #5 crock but Michael rightfully asked me what I would use it for and where I would put it.  The kids learned about pottery making and ran around the giant rooms expending some of their built-up energy.  I bought some art deco salt and pepper shakers which I will keep for myself (one of the very few souvenirs we have from the trip). 

Continue reading