Monday, July 28, 2014


Buenos dias, everyone!

This past Saturday I returned from a nine day journey to Nicaragua with my best friend Caitlin and her family. Caitlin and I have know each other for over 15 years, and her family is like a second family to me. I've done quite a bit of travelling with Caitlin's family and it's always a lot of fun. Her family traveled to Nicaragua for the first time three years ago and had such a good time that they decided to return, and this time I was lucky to get to come along! 

We stayed near Rivas, which is on the Pacific side of Nicaragua to the west of Lake Nicaragua.
In Nicaragua we stayed in a rental house near a resort which had a lovely beach, restaurant, and spa. Our time was split between leisurely beach time and time for activities and excursions. On days we stayed near the house we spent time sunbathing, swimming, and enjoying the company of the howler monkeys which liked to hang around the house. Through the resort we were able to do morning yoga on a platform overlooking the beach, attend a chocolate workshop in which we learned about cocoa beans and even go to make our own truffles, and have a relaxing spa session on the last day. 

Homemade chocolate truffles!
Our two main excursions were to Granada and Ometepe Island. In Granada we went zip-lining and toured a volcanic crater cloud forest. The plants were very pretty and interesting (we saw poisonous spiky plants and hallucinogenic mushrooms!) and we got to see a sloth! In the afternoon we took a boat tour of Lake Nicaragua. One of the stops was a small island called "Monkey Island". A veterinarian who has a house on one of the small islands looks after the monkeys. One of the monkeys named Linda had a small baby which rode on her back. It was muy amable (very cute)! 

Linda with her baby. 
A few days later we took a ferry to Ometepe Island and visited a interesting natural phenomenon called Punta Jesus Maria. It is a sandbar that is created from volcanic dust that stretches out far into Lake Nicaragua. The name means "Jesus on the Sea" because if you walk to the end of the sandbar it looks as if you are walking upon the water, just as Jesus did. After that we hiked through a nature trail and got to see lots of plants and animals, including lots of butterflies and a tree snake. In the afternoon we went to a volcanic mineral spring to swim. Caitlin and I didn't swim, but we sat with our feet in the water and shared the place's signature drink- coconut water and rum- called a "coco-loco". Other than the two excursions, my favorite part of the trip was getting to go rappelling off of a 340 foot cliff. I'm not afraid of heights, but rappelling was definitely a challenge. Going over the edge is very scary! I was almost too scared to do it, but I'm so glad I did! The view was amazing, and I felt so brave afterwards! On the last day we visited the Masaya Volcano National Park, which was also very cool.

Punta Jesus Maria
Although I would have liked to, I didn't learn much Spanish during our visit. Latin, Greek, and German are already enough for me to handle! I did learn a few new words and phrases, though. Even without knowing the language I feel that I got a good impression of the country. Although the standard of living seems much lower than in the USA, I think that the simplicity places the focus on the more important things in life. Everyone I met was very friendly, happy, and everywhere I looked I saw families spending time together, kids playing together, neighbors chatting, and people enjoying nature and community. Even though Nicaragua may be behind the USA developmentally, I think there is a lot we can learn from the Nicaraguans. I know that seeing the differences in lifestyles- both positive and negative- between the USA and Nicaragua gave me a lot to think about.

View into the volcano at Masaya Volcano National Park
In case anyone reading this is interested in visiting Nicaragua, the place we stayed was near Playa Gigante. I reviewed most of the attractions and restaurants we visited on TripAdvisor, so if you are interested in checking out which places I recommend, take a look at my TripAdvisor profile. Also, we had two tours through Macua Tours. When Caitlin's family visited Nicaragua for the first time they met a young man named Edwin who has since started his own tour company. Both tours and guides were excellent, and I definitely recommend Macua Tours to anyone planning to visit Nicaragua. Of course, if you have any questions or comments about my visit, feel free to post them in the comments section below. 

Our beach in Nicaragua. I rappelled from the highest point on the cliff!
When we finally boarded our plane back to Texas, I was sad to leave the land of lakes, volcanoes, monkeys, dragon fruit, plantains, and rum! I had a wonderful trip and I hope to return to Nicaragua someday. 

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Pre-London Update #2

Hello everyone!

At this point it's about seven weeks until I set off on my adventure in England. In the past few weeks I've been doing lots of researching and planning with my friend Gabby, who is also coming. We've finially finished our plans for the first week (we're arriving about a week before our school meet-up date so we can do a little travelling before the semester with Gabby's dad). 

During our first week, we're starting in London, then spending a few days in Keswick and York, and then  back to London again. I'm very excited that we're going to visit the Lake District! It was one of the places that I wanted to visit, but wasn't sure we'd be able to fit into our travelling schedule because it's a fairly long trip. Although it's not home to as much history as a place like Canterbury or Bath, the Lake District is said to be one of the most beautiful places in England. In Pride and Prejudice, Lizzie visits the lakes with Mr. and Mrs. Gardiners, and the beautiful landscapes also inspired poets such as William Wordsworth. (Correction: Lizzie and the Gardiners originally planned to go to the lakes, but only made it to the Peak District.) I'm thrilled that Keswick will be one of the first places we get to visit! 

After spending a few days in Keswick, we'll take a train to Carlisle where we'll sight-see for a few hours before catching a second train to York. In Carlisle I hope we get to visit Hadrian's Wall, Carlisle Cathedral, and Carlisle Castle (I'm also excited because I have a friend whose ancestors are from Carlisle!).  I'm not sure exactly what we'll do in York, but we are definitely going to visit Castle Howard. I don't know too much about it other than that it's a beautiful home and is where the BBC mini-series of Brideshead Revisited was filmed. I have a long list of books to read, and hopefully I'll get to read Waugh's classic before my trip! After York it's back to London for a few days to see the sights. During our time in London we may take a day trip to Windsor or Hampton Court. There are some bike tours I've been looking at online which seem like a lot of fun! Our accommodation and main transportation has been booked, so the framework for the first week is set.  We haven't decided exactly the places we'll visit and things we'll do, but I'm sure whatever we decide will be awesome. I think since it'll be our first week abroad we'll just be so excited, a little bit in shock, and we'll have a blast whatever we end up doing. 

Planning the first week was exciting and fun (because I like to plan and research things!), but it was also pretty stressful. Here are a few tips I've learned for planning trips...

  1. Start early! This tip is everywhere, but it can't be said enough. For example, if you book accommodations early, you can make sure you find a quality place to stay in great location for a good cost. The longer you wait, the more you'll have to compromise. 
  2. Come to terms with the fact that travel, especially if you're going somewhere like London, is going to be expensive. For me, I'm all about finding cheap prices, even if it means I'm paying for less quality. However, you really do get what you pay for, and you won't be able to enjoy travelling if you're in staying a terrible location or in a dirty, cramped hotel. Travel can be expensive, but embrace it. Save money where you can, but don't cut corners so much that you end up having a stressful trip.
  3. Check out hotel alternatives. Like I said, travel can be expensive, but if you look around you can find some great options for accommodation and transport. For example, some universities in London rent out dorm rooms in the summer for travelers. Hostels are great, there are flat rentals at, and you can find some great locally owned bed and breakfasts.  
  4. Do your research. While planning for the first week, I've fallen in love with TripAdvisor. I've been able to find valuable information and reviews of everything from hostels to restaurants to tourist attractions. Furthermore, the forums are surprisingly active! I've asked several questions on the forums and have gotten multiple responses on all of them within a day. Also, take advantage of sites like Priceline and Kayak. They don't always have local B&Bs listed, but they can help you can snag a good deal. For smaller places, there are plenty of B&B search engines on the web that can help you find someplace local to stay.
  5. Buy advance rail tickets. Not much more to be said here. Advance tickets go on sale up to 12 weeks in advance and can sell out quickly. However, if you buy in time it can be the difference between a 12 GBP ticket and one costing 65 GBP!
  6. Don't get stressed out. Even if you don't manage to book the hotel you really wanted or the train time that was perfect, it's okay. There are plenty of great options available, and you may find that your second choice is even better than your first! 
That's all I have about London for now! My summer has been spent working at the YMCA, hanging out with my sisters, and watching the World Cup (Deutschland!). In a few days I'll be setting off for a week long adventure in Nicaragua with my best friend Caitlin and her family- but I'll save that for a blog post after I return. I hope everyone is doing well and enjoying the summer. If you have any questions or comments, feel free to leave a post below. Until next time, all the best!

Saturday, July 5, 2014

Apricot Almond Cake

Happy 4th of July!

The past month has been very busy for me- finishing my junior year of college, moving home, training and beginning work for my second year at my local YMCA day camp, planning for my semester abroad (more on that to come!), and everything else in between. Now that summer has settled into something of a steady schedule, I'm happy to have a little more time for blogging.

Yesterday was my dad's birthday, and to celebrate (albeit a day late) I made him an apricot almond cake. I enjoy trying out vegan/alternative recipes, and a year or so I came across a recipe for "Apricot-Glazed Almond Cupcakes" in the cookbook "Vegan Cupcakes Take Over the World" (a book which I own and love!). The recipe was a hit with my non-vegan friends, so I decided to try it out on my family (also non-vegans, but a tougher crowd) as well. I substituted non-vegan ingredients for the vegan ones and the cake still turned out beautifully. My family loved it- especially my dad! Since then it has become his regular answer to my frequently asked question- "What should I make?" The recipe is easy, elegant, and delicious- without further ado, here it is!

Apricot-Almond Cake

modified from "Vegan Cupcakes Take Over the World"


For the cake:
  • 1/3 c. canola (or vegetable) oil
  • 3/4 c. sugar
  • 1/4 c. yogurt (I normally use non-fat Greek yogurt, but any kind will work; to make the recipe vegan use soy yogurt)
  • 2/3 c. milk (any kind- skim, whole, soy, almond, rice, etc.)
  • 1 t. vanilla extract
  • 3 t. almond extract
  • 1 c. plus 2 T. all-purpose flour (sometimes I substitute 1/4 c. whole wheat pastry flour for the all-purpose white)
  • 1 1/2 t. baking powder
  • 1/2 t. salt
  • 1/3 c. almond meal
  • approx. 1/3 c. apricot preserves/jam, or to taste

Optional glaze:
  • 1/3 c. apricot preserves
  • 1 T. water
  • 1/3 c. sliced almonds (to garnish)


  1. Preheat your oven to 350'F and grease a small approximately 8 x 4" baking pan. 
  2. In a bowl, mix oil, sugar, yogurt, milk, vanilla, and almond extract with a whisk.
  3. Add flour, baking powder, salt, and almond meal, and mix until just combined. 
  4. Pour batter into pan. 
  5. Scoop apricot preserves into a small dish and mix well to break up clumps. 
  6. Distribute small amounts of the preserves over the top of the cake. (I like to do this by making lines of preserves across the cake. Don't worry about having more preserves in some places than others- just do the best you can to evenly distribute it.)
  7. Cover the preserves as much as you can by swirling or scooping the surrounding batter over the preserves. Again, it doesn't have to be perfect!
  8. Put in the oven and bake for about 25 minutes. 
  9. The cake will be fairly dense and an inserted toothpick may not come out cleanly as the cake is filled with gooey preserves. If the top is golden brown and the center of the cake doesn't jiggle, it's done.
  10. You can either serve as it is, or cover with a glaze- if making the glaze, combine preserves and water in a small saucepan over medium heat.
  11. Bring to a boil, stirring often.
  12. Boil for about a minute, turn off the heat and stir for another 30 seconds or so, then remove from heat. There will be apricot clumps in the glaze- this is okay! 
  13. Pour the glaze over the cake and distribute with a pastry brush. 
  14. Finish by sprinkling with sliced almonds.
  15. Note: If you would like to make cupcakes (makes 12), pour batter into lined cupcake tins and put a small dollop (approx. 1 t.) preserves into the center of each cupcake, then cover with batter. Bake for the same time, and apply the glaze with a brush. 
  16. Serve and enjoy! 
Cupcake variation