Monday, December 28, 2015

Rome in 5 Days - Planning Your Time in Rome

Rome is called "The Eternal City" for a reason. Once the center of the Roman Republic, then the Roman Empire, it later became the capital of the Christian world. Today’s Rome, rich in cultural, social, and economic life, remains one of the most popular destinations for tourists from all around the world. There is so much to see and do in Rome, that touring the city may feel overwhelming at times. However, Rome shouldn’t just be about going to museums, but also about walking through small streets and history. Not only the sights are beautiful, but the people are friendly, and the food is delicious. The city of Rome is a wonderful place with magnificent piazzas surrounded by inspiring architecture and art.

Piazza Trinità dei Monti

Day 1: The Most Beautiful Roman Squares

The Spanish Steps
The Piazza di Spagna (the Spanish Square) is one of the best-known monuments of the Roman Baroque style. From here, the Spanish Steps descend toward the Piazza Trinità dei Monti and its magnificent church. According to the World Site Guides, the Spanish Steps have a storied history as a gathering place. The site’s beauty has always attracted artists, musicians, poets, and young women hoping to become their muses. This, in turn, drew rich businessmen and travelers who were looking for a wife or a mistress. The Steps remain to attract people from all around the World till today. Once you get here you just have to sit down and enjoy the atmosphere.

Spanish Square

Many people in the area of Spanish Steps attracts beggars.

The Trevi Fountain
The Spanish Steps are located only a short walk away from the beautiful Piazza Navona (one of the main urban spaces in the historic centre of the city), featuring the Baroque Church of Sant'Agnese in Agone and three fountains, including the Trevi Fountain. This fountain is the largest in the city and is considered by many to be one of the world’s most beautiful. No wonder it was featured in movies like,  La Dolce Vita and many others. Tourists are likely to believe that if they throw a coin into the fountain, they are guaranteed a return to Rome—the coins are collected every night and given to an Italian charity. What many people don’t know is that the Trevi Fountain is one of the oldest water sources in Rome.

Italian Pizza
On our first day in Rome, we had a taste for a true Italian pizza. We found what we wanted at the Berzitello Pizzeria. The restaurant offers many different meals and types of homemade pizza for both lunch and dinner. Be aware that, during the day, some restaurants sell only pizza al taglio—cooked in a regular oven and sold by the slice. This kind of pizza is great for an on-the-go snack, but if you want a real Italian pizza, you may need to wait until 7 p.m. Luckily to us, at the Berzitello Restaurant you can get tasty, crisp pizza from a wood-fired oven all day long!

Day 2: Ancient Rome

The Colosseum
You can expect a long line to enter the Colosseum even with a Roma Pass (admission from 8:30 a.m. to 6:15 p.m.). If you are visiting during the summer, try to be there as early as possible. There is no shade for those standing in the admissions’ line, so you want to limit wait time to minimum. While walking through this famous amphitheater, you will be exposed to the sun for much of the time as well—how wonderful its original Roman shades would be! Yes, in ancient times the audience could enjoy shows in the shade of an enormous cloth called the velarium, that had ropes and pulleys which extended or retracted according to the position of the sun.

The Colosseum Arena

The Roman Forum
The Roman Forum—the heart of the ancient city’s public and political life—is situated near the Colosseum. It’s a large area with little shade, so summer months are far too hot to fully appreciate this beautiful place steeped in history.

The Roman Forum

Panoramic views of the Roman Forum

The Piazza Venezia and The Piazza del Campidoglio
If visiting Rome in the summer, I would suggest skipping the walk through the Roman Forum in favor of spending more time at the Piazza del Campidoglio, which offers panoramic views of the Forum. This designed by Michelangelo hilltop square is located atop Capitol Hill and near the Piazza Venezia.

The Piazza Venezia From Far Away (Image source: www.morguefile.com)

Gelateria Brasile
Gelaterie Brasile is located right on the corner of the Piazza Venezia, a place we found entirely by accident. Its homemade gelato was a pleasant, delicious surprise. We didn’t eat at the gelateria’s bar area, walking instead to the nearby Doria Pamphilj Gallery where we sat to enjoy some shade. It was the perfect refreshment after many long hours of sightseeing.

The Pantheon
Situated at the Piazza della Rotonda, the Pantheon is where an eagle seized the dead founder of Rome—Romulus—and took him into the skies to be with the gods. According to romecabs.com, this ancient temple honored pagan gods. Today, this magnificent monument serves as a Christian church and still inspires architects and artists. Due to its beauty, many couples choose the Pantheon for w weeding ceremony. 

An Affordable Restaurant near the Pantheon
Our last stop of the day was at the Cul de Sac authentic Italian Restaurant  which offers pizza, pasta, and meat and cheese platters. The air conditioning did little to cool us down, but the ravioli was delicious, and the location was convenient.  

Cul de Sac

Day 3: Vatican City

The Vatican Museums and the Sistine Chapel
Nothing ruins a trip more than failing to plan and, as a result, missing a sold-out attraction. Don’t let that happen to you: If visiting the Vatican, book tickets to the Vatican Museums well ahead of time. While it is possible to buy tickets on site, doing so requires waiting in line—in the full sun—for as much as three hours. Instead, skip the queue and buy tickets online through the Official Vatican Museums website (16,00€ + 4,00€ pre-sales fee). The Vatican Museums house some of the world’s most beautiful and culturally significant art, along with unbelievably beautiful Sistine Chapel—featuring Michelangelo’s frescoes—where conclave gathering to elect popes take place.

View form the Vatican Museum Window

Sistine Chapel

A Secret Passage from the Sistine Chapel to St. Peter’s Basilica
The main entrance to St. Peter’s Basilica is through St. Peter's Square, but there is a secret passage (on the back right site) in the Sistine Chapel through which you can reach St. Peter’s Basilica without standing in line. Technically, this hidden passage is reserved only for licensed tour guides, but we didn’t have any problem using it

The Interior of St. Peter's Basilica

St. Peter’s Basilica and the Dome Climb 
Built in the fifteenth century, St. Peter’s Basilica (free to enter) is one of the largest Renaissance-style churches in the world. The basilica contains many tombs and sculptures, including John Paul II thomb and Michelangelo's Pietà, but to me the most fascinating feature was the giant dome overhead. The entry to the copula costs either 7€ or 5€, depending on whether you choose to avoid 221 steps with a short elevator ride or climb all 551 steps to the top. Whatever you choose, the view is well worth the effort. However, skip this attraction, if you don’t feel well in small spaces—corridor gets very narrow as you reach to the top. 

Panoramic View of Vatican Gardens Seen from the St. Peters Copula

St. Peter's Square

Day 4: Civita Di Bagnoregio

Rome is such a mesmerizing city that you could spend an entire month there and still not see everything—but don’t forget the many spectacular options outside the city. Easily reached by train are Ostia Antica, Assisi, Castel Gandolfo, and Orvieto. We rented a car at Termini Station (Rome’s central train station) and drove two hours to the less well-known Civita di Bagnoregio.

This breathtaking medieval town in central Italy is actually two separate towns. Civita lies on a hill and is accessible only by a long bridge that begins at the end of the road leading from neighboring Bagnoregio. Founded by the Etruscans in the sixth century BC, the town was then an important city connected to a network of trade routes. Civita is now considered a dying town as erosion eats away at its edges. However, the town is not abandoned. Depending on your budget, there are many hotels and restaurants from which to choose.

For more information about how to reach the Civita di Bagnoregio by public transportation, or and where to stay and eat there, please see Civita di Bagnoregio by touristsbychance.com.

In Civita the population of cats outnumbers humans, and have become something of an attraction themselves.

Stray cats, called "Free Cats," are legally protected in Italy.

An Etruscan tomb turned into a chapel in the Medieval period.

Bridge Connecting Civita and di Bagnoregio

Day 5: Rome at Night 

(Image source: www.morguefile.com)

On our last day we walked from the Piazza Navona to the Ponte Sisto bridge and to Trastevere, a picturesque medieval area located on the West bank of the Tiber River. The central part of Trastevere is the Piazza di Santa Maria. During the day streets of Trastevere may seem depopulated. It’s best to visit here during the evening when the restaurants and bars are open. Summer nights in Rome are warm, so eating outside is a real pleasure.

Gelateria dei Gracchi
Our favorite part of Trastevere was eating delicious, fresh gelato at Gelateria dei Gracchi—the best seasonal gelato flavors I’ve ever tried.

Ponte Sisto Bridge (Image source: www.pexels.com)

The Colosseum after Dark 
Rome’s atmosphere in the moonlight is incredible. Ancient ruins look even more magical and mysterious at night. My favorite part of our evenings in Rome was walking through the Via dei Fori Imperiali Road that connects Piazza Venezia to the Colosseum. Walking in the glow of the Colosseum while listening to live music and watching street artists was a perfect way to end our trip to Rome.

Good to Know...

While there are many places to stay in Rome, it’s almost impossible to find a nice and affordable hotel in the city center. The truth is that most of the old hotels by Termini Station or near the Colosseum are low quality or overpriced. Many tourists do pay exorbitantly to stay in the ancient part of Rome, but our decision to stay elsewhere worked out well. We found a nice, spacious 4-star hotel with excellent air conditioning and friendly staff in a very good price east of the ancient city—about ten minutes by bus from Termini Station. Our room was pleasant and the bed was comfortable. The bathroom was great—and the hairdryer, incidentally, worked well, indeed!

Adjacent to the hotel is a promenade featuring many restaurants. After a long day of sightseeing, it was convenient to simply step outside for a true Italian meal. The area around the hotel may seem sketchy at first, but we felt perfectly safe there. In a way, it felt calming at the end of a day to leave the busy center of Rome with its tourist hordes, and return to the quieter Pigneto and its many traditional small restaurants, markets, and shops. Once an industrial area that was home to the working class, in recent years the neighborhood has become a trendy nightlife destination for locals, by New Yorkers called "the Williamsburg of Rome."

Tourist Pass
The Roma Pass (for 36€) gives you three full days of public transportation along with entrance to two major tourist sites of your choice. You can buy this card at most museums, historical sites, and all Tourist Information Points (TIP) located at most major train stations and tourist sites.

The Roma 48H Ticket (12,50€) is a two-day integrated ticket for public transportation only that is valid for forty-eight hours from its first use.

A great source of tourist information on Rome and Italy
My favorite source of information about Rome is touristsbychance.com. Giulia and Valter reveal the secrets of Italy that can’t be found in mainstream guide books. Be sure to check out their The Eternal City blog post to learn about the many hidden treasures of Rome.

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Thursday, September 3, 2015

How to Dress in Rome During Summer - Travel with Style (Girl in Italy)

How to Dress in Rome During Summer

Dress Light - It's Hot!

Summer days in Rome tend to be very hot; daytime temperatures during July and August can reach over 100°F (38°C). Even if you are used to high temperatures back home, Rome heat may be worse to deal with, because air conditioning in public transportation and many old buildings isn’t that great. Some restaurants don’t have air conditioning at all. This means that the less you wear, the better. At the same time, you don’t want to reveal too much because a major part of sightseeing in Rome is visiting churches. That's why, for your summer trip to Rome, you should pack light dresses and skirts instead of tiny shorts and mini skirts. The key to dressing light on hot days without revealing too much is to choose breathable materials like cotton or linen. Another great idea is to carry a light shawl to cover up with if required. A hat, sunglasses, and lots of sunscreen are must-haves when visiting the Eternal City in the summer.

Vatican Dress Code

While covering up in some places is simply respectful, Vatican imposes a special dress code for the Holy City. According to the Vatican Museums' website, “Access to Vatican Museums, Sistine Chapel, Vatican Gardens and Saint Peter's Basilica is permitted only to visitors dressed appropriately (no sleeveless blouses, no miniskirts, no shorts, no hats allowed).”

Comfortable Footwear Without Sacrificing Style

You will do a lot of walking in Rome, so you will need comfortable walking shoes. Strappy walking sandals are ideal for long walks around the city in summer. Flip-flops or shoes with flat soles will not work, because Roman streets have a lot of uneven bricks, so it is better to choose padded shoes that provide some support.

"When in Rome, Do as The Romans Do”

Italy is often called the fashion capital of the world. Italians, on average, dress really well, but not over the top—I would call it casual chic. When packing for your trip, keep in mind that Rome is a good place to style your outfits a bit. However, if you worry about looking like a tourist, guess what? Italians already know you are a tourist, so wear what you feel best in.

Fore more tips on how to dress when you’re on vacation in Italy – see my blog post at touristsbychance.com.

Wednesday, July 1, 2015

7 Days in Riviera Maya, Mexico (Grand Bahia Principe Tulum Resort)

Mexico is one of the world’s greatest travel destinations, but it is also known for high rates of crime. Despite crime along parts of the US border and in areas along major trafficking routes, the majority of Mexico’s tourism destinations are very safe. In fact, Caribbean coast of Mexico's Yucatán Peninsula has one of the safest ancient ruins and white-sand beaches in the world. Nevertheless, when traveling abroad it's always a good idea to take precautions and research your destination in advance to ensure a hassle-free vacation.

There are many travel guides, blogs, and with YouTube channels that will help you prepare for your trip. Here are few sites that I found very helpful when I was planning my seven-day trip to Mexico: Pause the MomentWoltersWorld, and TripAdvisor.

Travel Tip

  • Even though in Mexico most service staff speak communicative English, it’s polite to start a conversation in Spanish. 

Simple Phrases in Spanish:

Hola (Hello)

Buenos días (Good Morning)
Buenas tardes (Good Afternoon; used until after sundown)
Buenas noches (Good Evening)
Habla usted inglés? (Do you speak English?)
No hablo Español (I don’t speak Spanish).
Gracias! (Thank you!)
Cómo estás (How are you?)
Muy bien, gracias (Very good, thank you)
Así (Yes)
No (No)
Adios (Goodbye)
Por favor (Please)

Travel Tips
  • Most tourist regions in Mexico are quite safe, but you should research your destination in advance to ensure a hassle-free vacation. 
  • Confirm all reservations before your leave, including flights, hotels, and cars.
  • If possible, make room requests (e.g. beach view) and book restaurants in advance (Grand Bahia Principe Tulum offers 3 dinners in à la carte restaurants per week of stay).
  • Aprenda un poco de español.

Day 1: Cancun Airport & Driving to the Resort

The route from Cancun International Airport to Riviera Maya is fairly easy. There is one highway with all main resorts on both sites of the road. Some of the major towns located in the Riviera Maya include Akumal, Xcacel, Xel-Ha, Tulum, and the largest Playa del Carmen. A ride takes about 1.5 hours depending on the location of your resort. You can rent a car or take a bus. Most car rental companies have staff at the terminal who transport customers by vans to off-airport offices. The whole process shouldn’t take more than 30 minutes (you can rent a small Chevrolet for 7 days for about $270).

A fresh breeze from the Caribbean Sea accompanied my first steps into the spectacular main lobby of the Grand Bahia Principe Tulum. A high-roof lobby with stone columns and water falls had very calming, spa-like feeling. The professional front desk staff welcomed us with margaritas.

On the Way to the Main Buffet

Our room in Villa 31 was nice and a good size, but a bit old. On the bright side, we had an amazing sea view. Unfortunately, the room was a little humid, but what can you expect when you're at the beach.

After unpacking, we picked up towels and headed to the main pool. The evening we spent at La Plaza Mayor Terrace (a bar with live music and dance shows).

Dolphinarium Room View 

Our Friendly Neighbor is Saying Hello!

Travel Tips
  • If booking a car, don’t forget to bring an official letter from your credit card, stating that you have international car insurance, to avoid extra fees.
  • Don't waste your time on the "Privilege Club." It’s a third-party run "club" run by a third party that promises extra benefits to people who pay up front and return to hotels associated with the club. They use different tactics such as offering free gifts, or warnings that there are just few memberships left at a certain price, etc. They give the impression that the Privilege Club is somehow a part of the hotel chain or a car rental company, but it’s not!

Day 2: Getting Around the Resort & Beach Activities

On day two, we had the best time ever swimming in the pool, lying on the beach, kayaking, drinking margaritas, and just chatting.

Small Trains that Run for Easy Transport Between Main Lobby and Hotel Amenities

What about a massage at the beach?

Relaxing at the Beach
That afternoon, we tried parasailing ($100 per person). Even though I felt sick after a few minutes in the air (I get airsick on a plane as well), it was one of the best experiences of my life. It literally felt like "floating on air," and the panoramic view of the resort area was spectacular. 


In the evening we had a reservation at Le Gourmet a formal French restaurant in Coba (men have to wear long pants, but sandals and flip-flops are acceptable). The restaurant has beautiful interior, very welcoming staff, and delicious food. It’s my favorite restaurant at a Bahia Principe, and I highly recommend it to everyone (especially the Avocado Salmon Salad).

On the Way to Le Gourmet
Travel Tips
  • Take some time to familiarize yourself with the resort. The Grand Bahia Principe property is right at the beach, and you can’t get bored there. You can enjoy unlimited food and free drinks, pools, a gym, water aerobic, casino, spa, golf, live music, shows, and much more. 
  • Le Gourmet is a must-see restaurant when staying at the Bahia Principe.

Day 3: Coba Maya Encounter

Because we rented a car for our entire stay in Mexico, we could have easily driven to Coba Ruins ourselves, but we booked a guided group tour so we could take advantage of the whole package Coba Maya Encounter offered ($125 per person). The encounter started with the Coba Ruins where we climbed the pyramid. Later, we were transported in a van to a jungle for a short ritual, rappelling into a cenote, two zip lines, and paddling through a laguna. The day ended with a tasty lunch prepared by the locals and shots of tequila. The excursion was filled with attractions that would have been difficult to fit into one day if we had gone on our own. We had a fantastic time, and we met amazing people, including our tour guide, Anna who looked after us throughout the day. She gave us a lot of interesting information about Maya Civilization and even taught us some Mayan language. I really appreciated her help when it came to rappelling.

Nohoch Mul, the Tallest Mayan Pyramid in the Yucatan, Which Rises 140 Feet (42 Meters) Above the Rainforest Floor

Travel Tips

  • Riviera Maya is one of the places where you would want to have a GoPro or a waterproof camera. Guided tours often offer photographs, but they are low quality and cost money (about $60/CD).
  • Rappelling is fun and easier than you would think. 
  • Going on an excursion could be a great way to meet new people. 

Day 4: Playa Del Carmen & Hacienda Doña Isabel

We were tired the morning after the Coba Expedition, so we stayed in bed longer than we planned. Around noon, we decided to drive to Playa del Carmen, a small tourist city about a 20 minute ride from the Bahia Principe (if you don't have a car you can take a colectivo). At Playa del Carmen we sat on the beach and watched the boats leaving for Cozumel, a popular cruise ship port famed for its scuba diving. After a walk through La Quinta Avenida, a busy promenade lined with handcraft stores, we headed to the town to buy 100% agave tequila, rum, and vanilla extract.

On our way back to the resort, we got off the main road to see what the “real Mexico” looks like. We saw kids playing on the streets and a man in a Bahia Principe uniform biking back home from work. Regular houses in Mexico are very small, colorful, and somewhat unfinished, but they have their own charm. I was super excited to photograph authentic Mexico, but my husband didn't let me leave the car. He thought that locals may not like me putting my lens in their private lives. 

We got back to the hotel just in time to catch the last few rays of the sun and swim in the sea. We spent the evening at La Fiesta at Hacienda Doña Isabel ($16 fee to enter). They offered games, photo booths, drinks, and finger foods such as grilled corn and popcorn. The show was picking up very slowly, but the Maya part was very authentic. I highly recommend going to La Fiesta for everyone staying at the Bahia Resort.

Hacienda Doña Isabel

Travel Tips
  • Buy tequila and souvenirs away from the expensive resort shops, perhaps at Playa del Carmen.
  • Vendors may use different tricks to get you to come in their shops. For example, they may pretend to know you or say “almost free” just to get your attention.
  • Don’t be afraid to get off the main track, but don’t forget you're are a tourist.

Day 5: Chichen Itza, Ik Kill Cenote, & Valladolid

Chichen Itza, a large city built by the Maya people in around 600 AD, is located in the eastern portion of Yucatán (about 2-hour ride from Tulum). We got there around 10:00 a.m.,  right before crowds from the tour buses; Chichen Itza thus it is one of the most-visited archeological sites in Mexico (entrance fee is about $20). It was fascinating to see pre-Columbian city, but we were disappointed that we couldn’t touch or climb any of the buildings. However, we found Chichen Itza to be the best place to buy folklore souvenirs. Some tourists complain that the vendors are too pushy, but we liked that everyone was willing to bargain. As a result we bought a handmade wooden mask worth $100 for $35.

Temple of Kukulkan, also known as El Castillo, dominates the center of the Chichen Itza

On our way back, we stopped by the Ik Kil Cenote, one of the largest sinkholes in the Yucatán (about 80 pesos to enter the Ik Kil Archaeological Park). This is unfortunately also one of the most busiest cenotes in this area, so if you're interested in a more natural experience, Cenote Samula or Zací Mayan Sinkhole are perhaps better choices.

Another attraction of the day was driving through Valladolid, a small city with many colorful colonial style buildings, and narrow one-way streets full of activity. I wish we had more time to explore the city on foot.

Travel Tips

  • If you you're interested in buying souvenirs at Chichen Itza, you should know how much you're willing to spend, but almost everyone is willing to bargain.
  • If you do go to the eastern portion of Yucatán, be sure to stop by Valladolid.
  • Consider choosing the less commercialized Ek Balam and Cenote Zaci over the overcrowded Chichen Itza and  Cenote IK KIL.
  • The highways in Yucatán are quite good; you just need to pay attention to bumps.

Day 6: Valentines Day at Tulum Beach

Tulum, an ancient Maya city built on cliffs overlooking the beach, is a perfect place for a romantic day. Paradise Tulum Beach with its turquoise, calm water was the most beautiful site we visited in Riviera Maya. 

Tulum was One of the Last Cities Built by the Mayas

Tulum - Pre-Columbian Maya Walled City Served as a Major Port for Coba

Iguana is a Moderate Sized Lizard Endemic to Mexico

Tulum Beach is one of the Most Beautiful I've Seen

We finished the day at the Cenote Dos Ojos (250 pesos fee), a flooded cave system located north of Tulum. Dos Ojos ("Two Eyes") is an attractive cenote for scuba diving and snorkeling. When visiting Dog Ojos, I would recommend that you take with you just towels and leave all your belongings, including clothes, in the car. A tour guy who came with a bus full of tourists from Europe moved our clothes, because he thought that they belonged to his group. Luckily, I saw him do this and everything ended up well, but you don’t want to worry about your stuff when you're relaxing in the crystal clear water of Dos Ojos. 

Refreshing Water of Cenote Dos Ojos

Dinner at Don Pablo Restaurant (Tulum, formal dress) wasn’t as good as I had expected. The waiter stressed that we should purchase non-house wine and dinner special for an extra cost. The food was just average, and we had to wait very long time for our meal. In fact, a three-course dinner took over two hours. We should have eaten at the main buffet, especially after, on our way to the restaurant we saw mariachis playing live music to celebrate Valentine's Day.

Travel Tips
  • If you are going to visit the Tulum archeological site, make sure to take advantage of the magnificent beach. Bring a towel, water, and sunscreen!
  • On your way to the Tulum Ruins, some locals may try to stop you and offer you a tour. You don’t need a guide for this one, so just keep going and pay the fee by the entrance.
  • When going to a cenote, don’t take anything with you besides swimming gear, flip-flops, and possibly a towel.

Day 7: Enjoying the All-Inclusive Hotel

On our final day, we decided to have a lazy day at the all-inclusive hotel, enjoying palm trees, hammocks on the beach, barbecue by the pool, and free drinks.

Barbecue by the Pool

Snack Turned to be a Serious Meal

Happy Feet :)
In the evening we had a reservation at Gran Tortuga (Tulum, Brazilian, not formal). To be honest, I think that this place is overrated. The salad bar is limited, and the meat cuts are nothing special.

The Mexican state of Quintana Roo has much more to offer, such as the Xel-Há Natural Water Park (translated from Mayan language as “where the water is born”). Once an inner port, trading center, and shelter for sailors, today is a place where you can swim and snorkel in the river and the lagoon among hundreds of multicolored fish. Xel-Há is a true paradise, but it's quite expensive, so you need to bring lots of money to experience its flora and fauna. For this reason, we decided to skip this unique attraction; however, we plan to visit this amazing place during our next trip to Mexico! Also on our list are islands of Islap Mujeres and Isla Cozumel, both of which are easy to reach by ferry.

Travel Tips
  • A rental car gives you the freedom to explore on your own and experience the “real Mexico!” We saw some of the smaller towns, and were leaving the road whenever we saw something interesting.
  • In Riviera Maya, most places accept US currency, but you will be better off paying with pesos, especially at gas stations. 

If you have any questions please let me know in the comments bellow.  I hope you will have as much fun in Mexico as we did :) XOXO