2019 Year in Review: Best of Travel

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One of the traditions I enjoy the most on the blog is writing our yearly “Year in Review” post in which I share our travel highlights of the year.  2019 had lots of those and I am excited to share with you our must unforgettable trip, favourite road trip, tastiest food we ate, and more.

This year saw us settle more firmly and comfortably back into our lives in Canada.  I struggled mightily with our transition home from Australia in 2018 and it has taken over a year for me to feel like I am where I am supposed to be.  For more context, read our 2018 Year in Review.

In 2019, we spent 9 months of the year grounded to jobs, school and activities in Canada.  Although we took off for some shorter trips and local exploring, the highlight of the year was our 3 month trip to Mexico, India and Nepal.

Many people wonder logistically and financially how we can take an extended trip while maintaining our full time jobs.  Here is how we do it and other tips to travel more as a family:

Jobs – I took a 5 month (one semester) leave from my teaching job.  Paul worked remotely for his company (25 hours/week) while we traveled.  When we are in Canada, he works from the company office and this arrangement is not something they offer or encourage, but something he has to ask for.  Luckily, they have been very accommodating with us over the years. When traveling, he worked a few hours in the morning when he woke up and the kids and I would do some “school”, and again a few hours after the kids went to bed.

School – our Canadian school was supportive of taking the kids out of school for 3-months.  In all honesty, we didn’t do much formal school work while we traveled (they are on a real life field trip every day!).  But, we did keep up with reading, writing and some math.  Even with the gaps the kids have had away from school, they are all at or above grade level.  Taking them out of school for extended periods has not had a detrimental effect on them at all.

Our House – normally we would rent out our house when we travel for longer periods, but the short time period made that difficult, so we used the time to have some renovations done.

Finances – Paul’s 25 hours of work each week mostly covered our travel costs.  We intentionally chose budget destinations and stuck to a strict budget ($150-175 CAD/day, all in). Here are our tips for family budget travel ideas.

So let’s get into our favourite travel experiences of 2020.

Most Unforgettable Trip

Trekking in Nepal has been a dream of ours for so long and 2019 saw that dream come true.  What made it even more special was that we got to do it with our kids and do it with our good family friends from Australia.  We trekked most of the way to Everest Base Camp reaching an elevation of 4,400 m, over 10 days.  Being amongst the Himalayas, challenging ourselves physically, and experiencing the rich Buddhist Sherpa culture made for a truly unforgettable trip.

Read: 10 Days Trekking in the Everest Region

Most Iconic Destination Visited

On our first visit to India, we stayed in the south and skipped the Taj Mahal.  We knew our second trip to India had to include a visit to the Taj Mahal and it was even more spectacular than we could have imagined.  The shiny white marble, intricate carvings, and in laid precious stones were pure perfection and took our breath away.  Of course the story of this building is beautiful as well.   This mausoleum memorial was commissioned by emperor Shah Jahan for his wife Mumtaz Mahal and their legendary love story is embedded in Indian culture.Taj Mahal with kids

Best Road Trip

This summer saw us explore our own province in Canada more.  We spent two weeks camping and road tripping around Lake Superior.  We had been hearing amazing things about Lake Superior for awhile and it is easy to see why with its windswept trees, rocky coastline and untouched wilderness.Share the Chair Canada

Best Wildlife Experience

We travelled to Chitwan National Park with little expectation of seeing their elusive tigers, but hoping to see some interesting wildlife.  We could hardly believe our eyes when a tiger sauntered out in front of our jeep within the first hour of our safari.  Even the guides and drivers only see one every month or so.  It may have been only 2 minutes, but it was a pretty awesome bucket list travel experience.

Best Swimming Hole

Five years ago I couldn’t have told you what a cenote was, but after seeing lots of cenote pics on Instagram the last few years, Mexico got on my radar.  I had always thought of Mexico as the land of all-inclusive resorts and drug cartels, but after hearing about the awesome independent travel opportunities there, we opted to spend the first month of our 3-month trip in Mexico.

Cenotes are sinkholes formed by the collapse of porous limestone and make for great swimming holes.  They can be found all through the Yucatan region with some being quite touristy and others being local secrets.  They all feature crystal clear fresh water, some have rope swings and diving platforms and our kids were addicted to them.

Best Surprise Trip

Paul and I celebrated our 15 year wedding anniversary this year and while the kids were away at summer camp, Paul surprised me with a trip to Quebec City.  As the travel planner in our family, it was exciting and a bit uncomfortable to give up control.  I didn’t even know where we were going until we got to the gate at the airport.  We had a beautiful weekend soaking up the summer weather and French culture in Old Quebec.

Most Unique Stay

Spending a night in the Thar desert of India sleeping under the stars in the sand dunes was the most magical place we stayed in 2019.  To get to this remote location, we took a camel safari, an experience in itself.  Our budget tour surprised us by providing comfy beds with white sheets, masala chai in bed and home cooked food over the fire.  Ella wrote a blog post all about our camel safari.

Best Island

The year didn’t feature many beach destinations for us, but the one we did visit stands out.  Isla Holbox in Mexico is one of those places that I had been hearing about for year.  Billed as “off-the-beaten path” this sandy island with no cars and miles of sand bars and wild flamingos has slowly made its way onto top travel destination lists.  It’s not really “off-the-beaten path” anymore, but still has a great vibe and made for the perfect place for us to begin our travels and decompress for a week.Isla Holbox

Worst Travel Experience

To counter all these wonderful travel memories and to keep it real, we have two bad travel experiences of the year.  In Mexico, we all suffered through some terrible food-borne illness.  It was the sickest we had been in 15 years of travel and we were sick for a week.  Luckily since we were traveling slowly, we could take the time to rest and get better.  We think the culprit may have been a yummy looking flan we bought on the side of the road – lesson learned!

Was it the street flan that made us sick?

The second bad travel experience of the year was being scammed by a hotel in Delhi, India.  You can read all about our Booking.com experience here and why we hesitate to recommend using their site.  We consider ourselves pretty experienced travellers, but our first 24-hours in India, we got scammed twice.

Best Layover

We always try to take advantage of stopovers on long haul flights to break up the journey and see a new destination.  On our way from North America to India, we added a free stopover in Guangzhou, China.  This was our first time visiting China and it was a great taste of the country.  We did find the language barrier harder than anywhere we have been before, found the internet extremely frustrating and found it hard to find vegetarian food, but it was a fascinating city.  China offers 72 or 144-hour visa free stays, making a layover a great way to experience China.Guangzhou layover

Best Luxury Experience

As budget travellers, we don’t often get to experience luxury travel.  However for Christmas last year my brother treated us to a night at the gorgeous Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise.  The day we checked it saw the area receive huge amounts of snow, creating a beautiful winter wonderland.  We snowshoed across the lake, skated around the ice castle, ate gourmet foods and enjoyed our luxe suite.  Banff and Lake Louise in winter is spectacular and a great way to enjoy a Canadian winter.

Most Thrilling Activity

We visited the incredible Xplor and Xel-Ha theme parks in the Yucatan, Mexico and had a blast enjoying the gorgeous blue water of the Mexican Riviera and challenging ourselves with some adrenaline activities.  At Xplor, we ziplined above the jungle canopy, drove amphibious vehicles, and swam in underground rivers.  Xel-Ha can be described as a natural water park where you can tube down the lagoon, snorkel, try the ziplines and tightropes and many more activities.  Both are incredible parks to visit if you are in the Cancun, Tulum, or Playa del Carmen areas.

Best Off the Beaten Path Destination

We stayed a night in a rural village homestay in the Thar desert after our camel safari.  It definitely allowed us to experience the real India which led to my musings of village life for women in India.  The village revolved around the resident’s most prized possessions – cattle.  We spent our time trying to stay cool in the 40+ degree weather and lazily watching the goings on of the village.  The night was so sweltering, half of the family took our host’s advice and slept on the roof, braving the incessant flies.  It is travel times like these that are not comfortable, but so rewarding.

Favourite Campsite

This year our family took our first backcountry camping trip, in Lake Superior Provincial Park.  Packing for the trip from our car camping site challenged our logistical and packing skills, but it was a great first family backcountry trip and we are eager to plan more for 2020.  We hiked into a lovely, private campsite on the Lake and spent our time picking wild blueberries, hiking and swimming in the frigid Lake Superior waters.

Most Exciting Plane Journey

To access the beginning of the Everest Base Camp (EBC) trek, we had to fly into the “world’s most dangerous” airport – Lukla.  The short runway in the Himalayas and quickly changing weather create a thrilling plane journey.  We waited all day at the airport for the whether in Lukla to clear so our little 15-seater propeller plane could take off.  It was incredible flying low with the Himalayas rising up around us and the landing was just as exciting.  Sadly while we were trekking there was a plane crash, which killed two.Lukla airport

Best Archaeological Site

In Mexico we visited quite a few Mayan ruins and while each was impressive. One of our favourites was the ancient city of Uxmal, south of Merida.  The ancient city dates from the 6th century and flourished over the next 400 years.  Climbing these ancient temples and buildings is a huge highlight of a visit to the Yucatan. 

The other site that stands out is Palenque in Chiapas State where the Mayan ruins have been overtaken by the jungle, similar to Angkor Wat in Cambodia.  These ruins are more off the beaten path, but just as interesting.

Favourite Celebration Abroad

When I found out that our time in India would coincide with the colourful Holi festival, I was thrilled.  How could you not want to spend the day throwing coloured pigment on strangers!?! Our itinerary determined that we were in Udaipur for Holi and it was the perfect place to celebrate.  It had a good mix of locals and visitors, was safe and by staying at a small guesthouse, we got to experience it traditionally.  We posed for endless selfies, danced in the streets and spent a ridiculous amount of time trying to get it all off afterwards.

Read all about our experience celebrating Holi with Kids in this post.

Honorable mention goes to celebrating Carnaval in Mexico.  This one was extra fun because it was a surprise.  We couldn’t figure out why it was so hard to find a place to stay in Laguna Bacalar and once we arrived, we found out why – CARNAVAL! We loved watching the parades with elaborate costumes, getting pulled into the dancing and soaking in the festive atmosphere.

Best Concert

We celebrated New Years skating on a pond in the Canadian Rockies listening to the Reklaws perform for live television.  It was such a fun concert, that we barely noticed the freezing temperatures! We will be back there again this year for New Years so we have high expectations of another great winter concert.

Favourite Food

As a foodie, how can I pick just one?  Here are 4 foods we loved this year on our travels:

Marquesitas in Mexico – these crepe-like snacks are traditionally served with Dutch cheese and Nutella.  The family was split about that combo – I loved it and the kids thought it was gross.  But, these roadside stalls are ubiquitous around Yucatan squares and no matter how you take yours, they are delicious.

Paneer Butter Masala in India – India was vegetarian heaven and while this dish may not be so good for our waists, we ate it almost every night regardless!

Momos in Nepal – these dumplings are delicious and served with tasty dipping sauces.

Dim Sum in Hong Kong – just like you have never had sushi until you have had it in Japan, you haven’t had dim sum until you have had it in Hong Kong!

Favourite Place Stayed

We have already mentioned a few of our favourite stays from the year, but there is another that deserves mention. For most people the highlight of visiting Agra is the Taj Mahal and it definitely was for us, but what also made Agra so special was the exceptionally friendly homestay we stayed at.  We love how staying at a homestay allows us to make special connections with local people, while supporting small-scale tourism.  At Sai Homestay, our hosts became friends as we learned about India, ate delicious home cooked meals and even bought ourselves some India clothes made by our host.

Sai homestay

With our lovely hosts in the clothes she made for us.

Favourite Tour

I love cooking and I love food and I love travel.  So clearly doing a cooking class is a huge draw for me.  We did a fantastic one in Udaipur in India with Shashi where we practiced recreating our favourite Indian dishes and spent time with this remarkable woman.  She was great getting the kids involved and our bellies were stuffed by the end of the class.

Best Reunion

Reuniting with our Australian neighbours in Nepal was such a special travel memory from the year.  For a month we became “10 Lost Together” and got to share so many experiences.  It was much easier convincing the kids to do a multi-day trek knowing they would have their friends along.

What’s Next for 2020?

We will be starting the New Year in the Canadian Rockies with a visit to my brother & his family with lots of skiing and winter active adventures.  We are so excited for quality family fun together and to see our adorable nieces/cousins.

We fell in love with Mexico this year, so we are very excited to head back in March to discover a new region.  We picked up cheap flights to Mexico City and will road trip up into the Central Highlands to San Miguel de Allende and Guanajuato.  We are excited to practice our Spanish, get some sunshine and eat lots of delicious Mexican food.

We have more exciting plans for 2020, so stayed tuned for an announcement in the new year.

Thank you for following along on our travels this year and we hope you have found some inspiration to plan your next trip.  If you want more inspiration, check out our 2018 Year in Review, 2017 Year in Review, and 2016 Year in Review.  Happy holidays and all the best in 2020!

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