February 6, 2014

Giving free travel talks—A great way to share knowledge and ignite travel dreams

Last weekend, on a sunny Saturday morning at a local Seattle-area library, I kicked off the first of several ninety-minute “Travel talks” I plan to give this year. The seminar-style presentations, which I call “Traveling The Best of Europe Independently & On A Budget” will be free, presented at assorted libraries in the Seattle metro area.

I began doing these talks several years ago after answering the umpteenth question about how to travel independently in Europe (since that’s my specialty), how to plan it, and where to go. I realized there was a hunger for this type of straight-up advice from a trusted source. Since then I’ve done several, and I’m always stuck by audiences’ desire for useful tips and, more importantly, a much-needed infusion of “Hey, I can do this!” confidence.


Some have asked why I bother doing these talks when it’s basically free work and free advice. My answer: Sharing my hard-won tips on budgeting, itinerary-crafting, and other how-to essentials is a joy. Moreover, it’s a public service. More than just the mere nuts-and-bolts information, I’ve found that it’s the message of “you can do it too!” that is truly valuable, no matter what destination you’re discussing. Any guidebook will have a chapter on the basics needed to plan a trip and where to go, but it’s a presenter’s confidence and palpable love for the subject that can inspire someone to finally book that plane ticket.

Tiber River in Rome

Tiber River in Rome

So, if you’re inclined to spread your knowledge and love of whatever destination you choose, please consider offering a ninety-minute “how to travel independently & on a budget to…” presentation at a local library. Impart your wisdom and fill the room with your enthusiasm for the places you’re talking about. You might just motivate a reluctant adventurer to take the trip of a lifetime, and that is time well spent indeed.


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Category: Adventure Travel, Backpacking, Europe, Images from the road, Notes from the collective travel mind, On The Road, Solo Travel, Travel Writing, Vagabonding Advice

January 21, 2014

Traveling Wisdom: NTAF

Chicken Bus

You can trust me when I say that any morning beginning with vomit and a side order of anti-diarrheals with breakfast for two thirds of the family is a harbinger of things to come. Add the words “chicken bus” to the breakfast conversation and it’s the perfect storm of endlessly horrific possibilities.

Every single chicken bus ride is worthy of it’s own blog post somewhere. I’ve yet to ride one in which I did not have a near death experience, sit within a whirlpool of humanity that just begged for comment, or just suffered enough to feel justified in a good rant; and that’s without giving time to the animal passengers that enliven the experience from time to time.

There really are no words adequate to the experience of being whisked aboard an old Bluebird bus, painted like a time machine, pimped out like a seventies low-rider and covered inside with enormous neon coloured stickers of the Virgin Mary and others reading things like, “God bless your entrance and exit of this bus,” “Please don’t mistreat the signs,” “Your children’s safety is our priority” (a Bluebird original) “Jesus is my co-pilot” or “Driving slowly saves lives.”

Taking a page out of the Mayan mujeres book it seems entirely reasonable to genuflect slightly to the Mother Mary sticker, cross one’s self and say a quick prayer to the patron saint of the slightly insane for deliverance from this necessary evil.

The bus up from Antigua to Chimaltenango gets a gold star for being the most harrowing thus far. I really did see my life flash before my eyes, and I was reminded of the tornado scene in The Wizard of Oz as I, like Dorothy, watched the swirl of cows, bicicleros, old men with goats and numerous small cars whirl just out of the way of the flying bus. More than one expletive was uttered, in more than one language by the passengers and there was a muttered undertone, that didn’t need translation, as to the appropriate description for our confident driver.

Getting seven people ON to one chicken bus is one adventure. Making sure you get the same seven OFF at the same stop, is quite another. I confess, on our previous exchange in Chimaltenango, to actually chasing the departing bus down the main street shouting, “HEY!!  I’ve got one more kid on there!! Dang it!!” in Spanish before realizing that there were actually two kids, and Daddy too, being whisked away at lightning speed.

Tony was off circulating between the tiendas up and down the block looking for ginger ale with real ginger for Ruth and Ez, who were both feeling green, while the rest of us held down our piece of sidewalk with the crowd of hopeful passengers waiting for their next bus on the corner of Washington and Jefferson on the main drag when it happened:

Ezra groaned, threw back his head in his signature “Oh man!” look and announced, “I have a personal problem!” Which is quite an improvement from where he started at three, in Mexico when he had “a personal problem” and threw himself down in the Cancun airport shouting, “I’m POOPING TO DEATH!”

I rolled my eyes on the inside and asked, as cheerfully as I could, “I’m sorry, what it it?”

“Remember what Dad said about never trusting a fart… well…” 

I rolled my eyes on the outside as the news passed between the children met with varying degrees of guffaw and disgust while Ruth just laughed. Tony wandered by, without ginger ale in hand, and muttered under his breath, “It’s a party now!”

After several moments of drama and debate that I’ll leave to your imagination I found myself standing shoulder to shoulder with my red haired cousin, our backs to a niche in the concrete wall, giggling, uncontrollably.

“You know all those people that send us gushy e-mail, wishing they could travel and have our life? THIS is totally what they’re missing. EVERYONE wants THIS life!”

Ruth, also giggling uncontrollably nodded beneath her straw hat and we peered over our shoulders just in time to see Ez finishing his clean up with what was left of his underwear and getting back into his drawers, commando.

Emerging looking only slightly scathed he settled under his Dad’s big eyeball trained directly on his two little beady ones and they made the agreement, one more time: Never, NEVER trust a fart.


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Category: Central America, Family Travel

January 14, 2014

Preparing kids to travel? Play games.


We’ve always been big on making a game out of learning new skills, and turning even the ho-hum into an adventure for our kids. When they were tiny and we were preparing to take them to exotic places for the first time, we came up with a series of games we played at home to get them ready. Even big kids have fun with these:

Tooth Brush Drills

Perhaps the number one way people become ill when traveling is from ingesting local water that contains contaminants, or parasites, or some other ugly, microscopic critter. Remembering not to drink the water is easy.

Remembering not to rinse your toothbrush, is not. Tooth brushing is one of those things we do on autopilot, and we have to retrain ourselves NOT to use sink water when we do it.

Our youngest child, at three, was the toothbrush police when we traveled. He’d be the one yelling loudly from the bathroom, “DON’T DRINK THE WATER!! DON’T RINSE YOUR TOOTHBRUSH!!  YOU’LL BE SORRY!!!!”

International Dinners

Many parents worry about their children’s eating habits as they travel. Some children are very difficult when it comes to meal times and encouraging flexibility and dietary branching out can be a real challenge. One of the ways that we encouraged a broad palate in our children, from the time they were babies, was to have an international dinner at least once a week.

These are the tiny steps that are easy to take in world schooling our children without ever leaving home.

We often tried to schedule the international dinners to coincide with evenings when we were having guests for dinner. Other families are often eager to join the party and bring something they’ve learned about that country to share. If you can find an actual PERSON to invite to dinner (or perhaps even cook with your family) so much the better!

The goal of this game is to make foreign people, places and their foods less scary to skeptical little people.

It is certainly fine for kids, and adults, to prefer some foods over others, and no child need eat a whole plate of lima beans if they truly dislike them. However, taking one bite of something before passing judgement on it is a requirement at our house.

There are cultures in which refusing food is the height of rudeness and our children need to be prepared to honor their hosts, be grateful for what is set before them, and try anything. Besides, sometimes they find that the slimy looking green stuff on top of their tacos (nopales-cactus paddle) is actually their new favorite thing!

Power Free Evenings

We’re a pretty plugged in society, in general. Rare is the household that doesn’t have a TV, game console, ipods, computers, DVD players or some configuration thereof. Some families have one of each in every child’s room. Kids who are used to so much electronic entertainment may have difficulty unplugging while on the road and declare themselves “bored” fairly quickly.

I am in NO WAY anti-media. But I am definitely in favor of the judicious use of it.

Our kids enjoy a movie night as much as anyone. They each have their own ipod. We have six computers in a family of six people. But we’re not emotionally dependent on these things for our happiness, or for contentment in the car, or at home, or anywhere else.

Unplugging once in a while has its merits, especially for children who need to develop a whole range of coping mechanisms for the rest of their lives. Self entertainment and the ability to be content with very little is not a small thing, and is relatively easily accomplished, simply by adhering to the “less is more” philosophy of stuff and tech time for kids.

Good friends of ours practice this with “power free evenings” once a week.

Every Friday afternoon at around 4 p.m. they unplug everything in the house but the fridge.

When our power was cut for three days in Africa, the children just assumed we were playing an extended game of “Power Free Evenings” and we had a lot of fun.

No Toys Allowed

Whether you are hiking to your favorite picnic spot in the woods, spending the day on the shores of a lake, or sunning yourself on the beach, try leaving all toys at home. This encourages kids to use their imaginations and make do with what is around them.

One of our kids created a game called “Kingdom Building” and is always on the lookout for a good pile of rocks to build his castles. With sticks for people and rocks for building material, what more could a kid want?

Bathroom Fun

Children are notoriously amused by bathrooms, at home and abroad. I’ll never forget my oldest son’s first encounter with a bidet in Mexico City or the slightly disturbed and violated look on his face after attempting to use it for the first time! We never quite got over the jokes about squatties in southern Italy and Africa… but then, we have three boys.

In our usual vein of “let’s prepare them at home before being embarrassed abroad,” we practiced for “different” bathrooms at home.  How? By posting a sign that informed users the bathroom was now in Germany and no one could use it without paying fifty cents, or Mexico and in order to get a few sheets of toilet paper one would need to pay a quarter to whichever family member had been designated the keeper of the toilet paper.

If you want to get really “authentic,” take the toilet paper out altogether and put a plastic coke bottle with a hole drilled in the cap by the toilet filled with water… portable bidet like we saw over and over in Tunisia.

This game is the MOST fun if you wait to play it until you have friends over for the day!

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Category: Family Travel

January 8, 2014

Vagablogging Field Report: Antigua Guatemala

antigua guatemala

Cost/day: $40/day

What’s the strangest thing you’ve seen lately?

Sidewalks! Living in Latin America for the past year and a half, sidewalks are unseen and non-existent… but not in Antigua, they have sidewalks to walk on, even if they are skinny and crowded.

Describe a typical day:

In the morning we head out to walk around the city’s (cobblestone) streets. We explore the cathedrals and other colonial buildings, and gawk at the nicest McDonalds we’ve ever seen. Later, we visit the large local market to shop for produce and to eat lunch. In the afternoon we watch a procession celebrating Dia de los Muertos.






What do you like about where you are? Dislike?

I love the overall cleanliness of the city, and the colorful homes and buildings. Antigua takes pride in it’s city. I didn’t dislike anything about our visit.

Describe a challenge you faced:

Trying to decide whether to stay an extra day so that we could do some extreme bungee action. (We decided to stay.)


What new lesson did you learn?

The city life can be a refreshing change after living in remote places for awhile. It’s good to have a mix.

Where next?

Next we’ll be heading to the border of El Salvador and Guatemala.

See more family travel adventures on my blog, or connect with me on Facebook.

denning family


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Category: Central America, Family Travel, Vagabonding Field Reports

January 2, 2014

Want some free Travel Wickedness?

I admit it, I have been lacking a few posts and overall been bogged down with work (yes, work, because even to sustain a life abroad we need some, in a form or the other), and I beg your pardon. To start off the New Year right, I believe you might love reading some quirky, wicked travel narratives from around the world.

You might take this as a shameless example of self-promotion, but the third issue of Wicked World, an alternative digital magazine I edit with British travel writer Tom Coote, is finally available as a great eye candy: just love the gloriously wicked Ethiopian Mursi warrior on the cover!!

As well as a range of alternative travel articles and photo features, for the first time we have also included some travel related fiction. At one end of the story telling scale, is a traditional Moroccan folk tale, The Red Lantern, selected by Richard Hamilton. In a more contemporary vein, where the lines between fact and fiction blur, we are also showcasing The Death Kiss of a King Cobra Show by Jim Algie.

At the reportage end of the travel writing spectrum, in Barbed Wire Scars, Marcello Di Cintio encounters desperate African migrants determined to make their way across the razor wired walls at Ceuta, in the hope of making it to the promised land of Europe. Equally contemporary, E T Laing investigates recent political upheavals in Bangladesh in A Savage Fundamentalism. (more…)

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Category: Adventure Travel, Africa, Asia, South America, Travel Writing

December 25, 2013

Vagablogging Field Report: Christmas in Nicaragua


Cost/day: $32/day

What’s the strangest thing you’ve seen lately?

It’s ‘strange’ to observe the traditional celebrations of another culture as an outsider. Our family of seven is currently observing the holiday traditions of León, Nicaragua (and Las Peñitas, the nearby beach town.)

Describe a typical day:

The atmosphere in the city of León is becoming more festive as Christmas approaches. When we drive in (from Las Peñitas where we are renting a house), there is definitely and increasing hustle and bustle. Many weekends are busy with celebrations, starting with Griteria which is on the 7th of December. Shops are setting up selling fruit (especially apples and grapes), toys and other holiday trinkets.

Nicaragua christmas

leon nicaragua


Describe an interesting conversation you had with a local:

Our family was invited to the home of a local Nicaraguan family, where we visited and learned about local customs and traditions. Some of them include making a traditional dish called pollo relleno (stuffed chicken) that has potatoes, carrots, and raisins (another Nicaraguan family shared this dish with us on Griteria and it was very good!)

Nicaraguans usually celebrate more on Christmas Eve, having a meal with family and friends, opening some presents, and perhaps lighting fireworks. Christmas Day may be spent at the beach. (We drove into León on Christmas Day to watch Frozen — in Spanish and 3D — and there were few shops or vendors out.)

The family we visited showed us much love and kindness, and even gave gifts to my unborn child.


A typical Nicaraguan home



What do you like about where you are? Dislike?

We love the colonial experience here in León — lots and lots of cathedrals and historical buildings. We love the beach and surfing (the family is just learning) in Las Peñitas. This is a great area!




Not a lot that we dislike. Costs are generally cheaper here than in El Salvador or Guatemala (except for apples!) Housing is a bit more expensive however.

Describe a challenge you faced:

Not having enough time to practice surfing this week, before we head to Costa Rica. :)

What new lesson did you learn?

It’s often those with less that are the most generous and giving. Time and again we are amazed by the liberality of people in developing countries.

Where next?

Soon we’ll be headed to Costa Rica where we will be having baby #6!

See more family travel adventures on my blog, or connect with me on Facebook.


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Category: Central America, Family Travel, Vagabonding Field Reports

December 19, 2013

Christmas in France–delicious and traditional

One of the great things about Europe is its magnificent Christmases, when the frosty air is infused with a spirit of joy and celebration. From Scotland to Slovakia, a smorgasbord of culture is on display as each country celebrates with its own unique traditions.

This is the second in a series about the Continent’s various subtle (and sometimes not-so-subtle) yuletide differences that make each culture uniquely fun.

Some of France’s yuletide traditions have spilled over to the US, where we associate the word “Noel” with the holiday. In fact Noel is the French word for Christmas, stemming from the French phrase les bonnes nouvelles, which means “the good news”.

Christmas in Alsace.

Christmas in Alsace.

Paris, the City of Light, celebrates in a less red-and green-light gaudy way than big US cities. But don’t let that fool you into thinking it’s a realm of secular Scrooges: its neighborhoods often host popular Christmas markets that are as festive as any scene in New York City. The shoppers bustle under the glow of the light-strewn Eiffel Tower, radiating light like a beacon against the cold night sky.

In the countryside, where the culture of any people really resides and thrives, the traditions are stronger and richer. The warm tones of local choirs singing medieval carols can be heard emanating from candle-lit, thirteenth-century churches. Soaring abbeys host more elaborate performances of ancient music under their arches. The smell of burning wood emanates from the fireplaces and stoves of old farmhouses in the chiller Normandy and Brittany regions, while the southern areas of the country enjoy the more moderate temperatures afforded by their proximity to the Mediterranean. Epic manger scenes crowd around the courtyards in front of the great cathedrals, uncomfortably close to the commerce-heavy outdoor markets where locals score the freshest chestnuts and tastiest red wine while shivering carolers entertain with the old favorites.

french xmas

In this strongly Catholic country, many families will attend the midnight Mass and return home to enjoy le réveillon, or the “wake-up!” meal.

And that meal is fantastic. Being France, the food is an integral part of the celebration—in fact it’s the culinary high point of the year for many. Delicacies like foie gras, oysters and escargots are popular aperitifs, while the entrée tends to be more straight-forward dishes like goose (popular in Alsace) and turkey (more popular in Burgundy).

Meat (including ham and duck) is paired with a good red wine and served with the ever-popular chestnut stuffing, a French favorite for generations. Chubby truffles are another beloved feature of most dinners. While the use of the actual Yule log has diminished somewhat, the French make a traditional Yule log-shaped cake called the buche de Noel. It’s a sugary delight of chocolate and chestnuts.

Small towns do Christmas right.

Small towns do Christmas right.

After the Mass and le réveillon, the children put their shoes in front of the fireplace hoping that Pere Noel (Father Christmas) will fill them with candy, nuts, fruit and gifts. As the kids drift off to sleep, the adults sit up late, hang goodies from the tree and polish off the Yule log. Before they turn in for the night, a softly burning candle is are left on the table in case the Virgin Mary passes by, a long-standing custom of this Catholic country.

From Bayeux to Arles, France revels in its ancient cultural traditions as it celebrates the Noel with that classically French combination of style and joy. Gift giving is less emphasized than the act of gathering and celebrating simple rituals with family and friends—and sharing a fine meal with good wine, of course.

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Category: Europe, Family Travel, Food and Drink, On The Road, Solo Travel, Travel Writing, Vagabonding Life, Youth Travel

December 11, 2013

Vagabonding Field Report: Giant Kite Festival – Sumpango, Guatemala


Cost/day: $40/day

What’s the strangest thing you’ve seen lately?

GIGANTIC kites made from tissue paper, tape and bamboo. Incredible and beautiful!

Describe a typical day:

Awoke this morning at The Homestead, ready for our trip to explore Guatemala before heading south to El Salvador. First stop? The Giant Kite Festival in Sumpango, in celebration of Dia de los Muertos. The atmosphere at the event was similar to that of a fair or carnival, with food stands and kite flying competitions, but the most incredible part was gawking with head bent upward toward the sky at the colossal, colorful kites.



Describe an interesting conversation you had with a local:

There were people from all nationalities and backgrounds in attendance at the festival… many Guatemalans, but also European, American and Australian tourists. Unfortunately, the only talking I did was to order food or ask for a bathroom… other than that I was gazing and taking photos.


What do you like about where you are? Dislike?

I absolutely loved seeing the beautiful kites. They were works of art, and must have taken hours and hours to complete. What a labor of devotion and appreciation for a holiday that honors one’s ancestors. I disliked seeing them almost destroyed by the wind, after all the work that went into them. I wonder what they do with them after the event?

Describe a challenge you faced:

Our biggest challenge today was trying to decide which delicious food to eat. Ohh, and we did get stopped as we tried to leave town, by dancers in the street. 

What new lesson did you learn?

I learned greater appreciation for the artistic abilities of the Guatemalan people. In the past, I haven’t necessarily considered this culture as being ‘artistic’, but the kites were truly masterpieces.

Where next?

Next we’ll be headed to Antigua, Guatemala… one of my favorite Guatemalan cities!

See more photos and video of the Kite Festival, or connect with me on Facebook.

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Category: Central America, Family Travel, Vagabonding Field Reports

December 10, 2013

An international driving test: Can you pass?

Bus, Laos

We’re taking this family adventure to the next level this winter. It’s the whole reason we’re making a pass back through North America, to tell the truth. We have two teenagers who need to procure driving licenses before we launch them into the world as fully viable adults. The easiest place for our bi-national kids to leap that hurdle is in the USA, where graduated licensing hasn’t quite caught on and the state motto of our official residence is “Live Free, or Die.” Indeed. This takes on new meaning when one’s spawn slides eagerly behind the wheel with a glint in his eye.

American kids go through a prescribed procedure, depending on their state, usually including formal lessons and a test, before they get their licenses. Canadian standards are similar, but more stringent. British kids learn to drive even though the poor things have to master doing it on the wrong side of the road. But what about international kids? What about those growing up across countries and continents; what sort of driving instruction should they have?

Tony and I have been considering this, as we prepare to launch our own young into the wheeled fray and we’d like to submit the following to the International Committee of Worldschooling Parents as a basic proficiency test for International Licensing:

1. Which side of the road should one drive on?

a- the right side

b- the left side

c- the top side

d- the side with fewest potholes & least oncoming traffic

e- there’s a side?


2. When driving on a 1.5 lane road the procedure for passing is as follows:

a- do not pass, you need two lanes to do that

b- blink lights twice, then pass on the left, hoping the overtaken will squeeze right

c- wait for an oncoming bus, hammer it to the floor and yell, “Banzai!”

d- pass on the berm to the right

e- play chicken with oncoming traffic in the half lane


3. When sharing the roadway with a passenger bus, two Bedouin on camels, a sleeping dog, three naked children, a flock of chickens and push-cart selling fried dough, who has the right of way?

a- the bus

b- the children

c- the pushcart

d- the dog

e- none of the above, there is a herd of goats crossing


4. A branch, or small bush laying in the roadway means that:

a- road crews are clearing the sides

b- something fell off of a truck

c- there is a truck broken down ahead

d- firewood is for sale ahead

e- a hurricane has just blown through


5. Which of the following does not belong on the highway:

a- livestock

b- lawn tractors

c- bicycles

d- drunk locals

e- you


6. How many passengers can you fit on a 3rd class bus:

a- capacity stated by the manufacturer

b- twice the capacity stated by the manufacturer

c- depends on their genus, phylum & species

d- is one of them carrying durian fruit?

e- one more


7. Should you help your father when he is pulled over by the police in Tunisia?

a- yes, he’s your dad

b- no, hang him out to dry

c- depends on whether or not he’s stopped speaking Spanish in a French-Arab country and making you translate yet

d- only if they make him get out of the car

e- my dad would never get pulled over by the police in Tunisia


8. When stopped by a policeman, in Oaxaca, wearing a badge that says, “I’m not corrupt, are you?” The correct course of action is:

a- pretend not to speak Spanish

b- offer him a bribe

c- hand him your passport and drivers license and act innocent

d- smile and negotiate the “fine” to a lower level

e- hand him your fake ID and drive off


9. The appropriate way to transport a pig is:

a- well, that depends on how far we’re going

b- in a registered farm vehicle

c- on his own three feet (he was lucky!)

d- in a basket on top of the bus

e- trussed out with bamboo, slung across the back of a moped


10. The maximum number of persons to be transported on a moped is:

a- two

b- Amsterdam, or Hanoi?

c- depends on how many kids you have

d- are we counting the sidecar?

e- locals or tourists?


11. When transporting a child under two on a moped the following is essential:

a- a helmet

b- a wicker chair for him to sit in

c- balance

d- a belief in Darwin’s theory of Natural Selection

e- an understanding of “Inshah Allah”


12. When presented with a grungy traveler hitchhiking one should:

a- pick him up

b- toss him a beer and keep rolling

c- assess his potential as a traveling companion based on number of instruments he carries

d- scratch and sniff

e- clap out the window


13. Which road sign should be taken most seriously:

a- stop sign

b- “turn left with caution”

c- camel crossing

d- green branch in the road

e- “toilet to puke in ahead”


14. When passing on a mountain curve:

a- wait for the cloud to lift

b- you don’t pass on a mountain curve, that’s dangerous

c- ambulance chase the chicken bus

d- honk and hope

e- are we going up, or down?


15. Rank in order, from safest to least safe:

a- Mexico City at rushour

b- six backpackers with gear in a Cambodian tuk-tuk in monsoon

c- crossing the street in Hanoi

d- bicycling in Rome

e- taking a cab in NYC


Post Script: 

Dear Children (or others new to international driving)

Your performance on this test, both theoretical and physical will not only determine when and if you get to drive, but where and what. Above average results will earn you wheels from 2- 16 on dirt paths to the autobahn. Below average results will relegate you to diesel water buffalo and hitchhiking (better learn to play an instrument!)

With love,

Your International Parents

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Category: Family Travel

November 27, 2013

Vagabonding Field Report: Largest Market in Central America – Chichicastenango, Guatemala

largest market central america chichicastenango

Cost/day: $40/day

What’s the strangest thing you’ve seen lately?

Ancient Mayan religious rites being performed in a Catholic cathedral… a unique blend of religions that tells stories about a part of the world with a conflicting history. 

largest market central america


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Category: Central America, Family Travel, Images from the road, Vagabonding Field Reports













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