Let me share a camping paradox with you–all of the outdoor physical activity involved with camping will really amp up kids appetites and literally anything will taste delicious when they are hungry.
Here are a couple of pointers to help with the trip.
A Little Meal Planning and Prep Goes a Long Way
1: Write down how many meals you will need, for example, are you camping three nights? This means approximately two breakfasts, two-three lunches and three dinners.
2: Create a menu for each meal. For simplicity, I usually repeat the breakfast and lunch menus and dinner has more variety. Write down everything you will need, including portions, seasonings and condiments. Pancakes without syrup? Hot dogs without buns? Write it all down and use this list when packing.
3: The day before your trip pre-wash, chop and cook as much as you can; remove excess packaging and repack food items in smaller, leak proof containers if needed. I use these for packing and if they make it back home afterwards I wash and reuse next time. Note, consider freezing meats if you are camping in warm temperatures.
Plan on taking at least two coolers-one for food and one for drinks. Pack the food cooler in layers, start with a layer of ice at the bottom then pack the last days food at the bottom and work your way up. Note: any raw meat should be at the bottom. At the top, place all ready-to-eat foods and fragile or small items in a plastic box. Fill in all the open spaces with ice and lastly place a piece of insulation at the top (I recycled a used car sun reflector cut to size). At the campsite, store the food cooler in the shade and open only as necessary.
Basic Menu Ideas
Chili-top with shredded cheese and serve with cornbread. Both chili and cornbread can be made at home and frozen in advance.
Ground beef tacos-add cheese, salsa and serve with sliced avocados. Brown and season the beef taco meat at home and warm on the campfire.
Sausage and pepper wraps-simply grill sausage, onions and peppers and wrap up in a warm tortilla, top with spicy mustard. Pre-chop peppers and onions and pack in a baggie.
Beans, macaroni and cheese-my family loves this, when camping I use canned beans (add cumin or some other smoky flavor) and boxed mac and cheese (add extra cheese at the end)
“Snack dinner” (basically a charcuterie board): line a sheet pan with an array of cured or smoked meats, nuts, cheese, baby carrots, cucumber slices, hummus, pretzels/crackers, fresh and dried fruit…..whatever you desire.
Grilled sandwiches-wrap in foil and warm on camp fire
Breakfast ‘biscuit’-see recipe below.
Egg, bacon, cheese breakfast taco-crack the eggs into a jar with a lid and pack in the food cooler (season eggs, shake the jar to mix before cooking), warm pre-cooked bacon
Fruit salad (strawberries and grapes hold well), whole apples, oranges and bananas can be cut on-site
Premix equal parts oatmeal, Kodiak Cakes pancake mix and dry milk.
Optional add-ins: salt (highly recommend), cinnamon, dried fruit/nuts
To cook: mix with water until it looks like lumpy pancake mix and cook over low heat in a pan sprayed with oil. Flip over once, serve with butter if desired or top with syrup or a nut butter.
Last but not least, the kids specifically wanted me to remind you: do not forget the marshmallows, graham crackers and chocolate bars.
“Ya’ll gonna pass a good time donna buy ya” says the woman at the ticket counter. “Great! We are looking forward to it!” I reply as the ability to translate my dad’s ancestral tongue floods my memory. We were in New Orleans, excited to celebrate the new year and fully confident we would witness our Longhorn’s win the Sugar Bowl game.
Upon arrival the previous evening, as we navigated to our hotel near the French Quarter, our eyes didn’t know where to settle first. The misty rain had softened the city’s edges and exaggerated the twinkle of the gas lanterns. The music pulsed around us as the curious crowd, doused in shiny beads, celebrated the eve of new year’s eve.
In a city better known for it’s jazz and jambalaya, the museum seems out of place. However, we learn it is housed here because the Higgins boats were built in New Orleans during WWII. These amphibious landing crafts were designed based on boats used in Louisiana swamps and marshes by Andrew Higgins, whom President Eisenhower referred to as “the man who won the war for us”.
The museum is housed in multiple buildings and we spend more than four hours here, but we could have stayed longer. If you are a WWII buff, plan on spending the whole day….maybe even two days. This museum does an excellent job of covering a complete history of WWII. Both the European and Pacific exhibits are well done and the museum explains the role each US military branch played in the war. The museum alone warrants a visit to New Orleans.
After our museum visit, we caught the St. Charles streetcar uptown to the garden district. We exited at Washington and walked towards Prytania Street. Soon we spotted the fern encrusted walls surrounding Lafayette Cemetery No.1. As we walked among the decaying, moldering crypts we discussed the grueling history of this city. My boys don’t really understand public health concepts of high infant mortality rates and yellow fever epidemics, but the cemetery helped them to understand the consequences of these events. We viewed the tomb of the Sercy family, which lost three children in two days to yellow fever, and the tomb for Destitute Orphan Boys, which has little toys cars lined up outside of it. After our tour, we are all grateful for modern disease control knowledge and sanitation interventions.
The air is hushed and sleepy as we continued our walking tour of the Garden District. This neighborhood is of a different era and we take our time to admire the elegant old homes. Don’t make the same mistake I make of trying to read the walking tour information off your phone as you traipse the broken, uneven sidewalks frequently deformed by tree roots pushing through. Yes, I should know better.
We spend the next two days in New Orleans just reveling in the joy of being with each other, experiencing New Orleans through the eyes of our children and yes-winning the 2019 Sugar Bowl.
On our way out of the city, we stop at Oak Alley Plantation. We spend most of our time on the grounds, the trees are stunning and the very well-done slave quarter exhibit sparked lots of questions from the kids. I appreciate that Oak Alley did not shy away from this painful part of their history and the exhibit is truthful and somber. The tour of the big house is informative but a little slow for the kids.
In Baton Rouge we stop to visit the “Pirate of the Pacific”. The destroyer ship, the USS Kidd, silently floats on the Mississippi river. It took us less than two hours to tour the ship and a small museum .
The last leg of our journey takes us to Lafayette. I wanted the kids to learn there is so much more to their Cajun heritage than just king cake on Fat Tuesday.
Lafayette, located in the southwest part of the state, is referred to as the heart of Cajun Country. The Attakapas tribe originally inhabited this area, joined by a few French, Spanish and African inhabitants. In the late 1700’s Acadians, forcefully removed from Canada by the British, made their way here in large numbers and settled. The resulting cultural composite of all these neighbors is quite unique.
We visit Vermilionville to learn more about the Native American, Acadian and Creole cultures. Located on the banks of a small bayou, this place is worth a stop. We hear lots of people versed in the fluidity of dual languages (“But you have time now, ca va?”) as the artisans demonstrate historical skills and crafts. My boys enjoyed talking with Chief John Mayeux of the Avogel Tribe, hearing D’Jalma Garnier play the Creole fiddle, and working the hand drawn ferry across the bayou. My husband was drawn to the woodworking and blacksmith shops. I enjoyed learning about the Creole style of architecture (ideal for warm, humid conditions), developed a greater appreciation for modern, indoor kitchens and learned all about how to weave cotton.
The later part of the day is spent down on the bayou (“donna buy ya”) with Cajun Country Swamp Tours. Our guide is a legacy of these wetlands. He forges a different path from the loud, boisterous guide in the boat a head of us. “That boy up thar-he a cooyon” our guide says with a laugh. My family looks at me to translate. “The other guide is an idiot….but expressed with love”-hard to describe but they get the point.
We silently move through wetlands surrounded by tall cypress trees draped in moss. We witness a multitude of large and small aquatic, land and air creatures, while we learn about this unique ecosystem.
The next day we bid our host state goodbye, “Au revoir Louisiana”, and arrive back in Texas ready to sleep in our own beds. This trip will continue to slowly be assimilated into our beings, and will shape our future in ways we can not yet foresee-for this is why we travel.
Excerpt from the epic poem Evangeline, A Tale of Acadie by Longfellow which famously captures the tragic story of a couple separated by the forced Acadian removal.
“Still stands the forest primeval; but far away from its shadow, Side by side, in their nameless graves, the lovers are sleeping. Under the humble walls of the little catholic churchyard, In the heart of the city, they lie, unknown and unnoticed; Daily the tides of life go ebbing and flowing beside them, Thousands of throbbing hearts, where theirs are at rest and forever, Thousands of aching brains, where theirs no longer are busy, Thousands of toiling hands, where theirs have ceased from their labors, Thousands of weary feet, where theirs have completed their journey!”
“It takes the shape of a place out west, but what it holds for her she hasn’t yet guessed. She needs wide open spaces.” ~Dixie Chicks
I was fifteen years old the first time I visited Big Bend National Park. My parents loaded the kids into the Buick station wagon (no air-conditioning) and drove about nine hours to get to the remote park. This was during the pre-entertainment device era and just to confirm, it was a long-ass drive. However, as we set up camp in the Chisos Basin at sunset, I knew we were somewhere special. Fast forward several decades later and I still hear Big Bend calling to me. I crave wide open spaces, big sky, luminous stars, breathtaking sunsets and the feeling of being on the edge of the world.
The family and I recently spent our Thanksgiving break at Big Bend and it was a trip that made us fall in love with being alive. We left our home mid-morning and drove west to Fort Stockton, located about 2 ½ hours outside of the park. Our stay in Fort Stockton, a town established in the mid-1800’s to protect travelers heading west through the Comanche owned land, was brief and uneventful. It is an oil town and seems to have an influx of fracking-related traffic. We ate a big Tex-Mex dinner, had a pretty decent margarita, filled the truck with gas and went to bed early in preparation for the remainder of the drive the next day to the Rio Grande Village campground.
The Rio Grande Village campground, southeast side of the park, is located close to Boquillas Canyon and the crossing into Mexico. A couple of things to note about the park, the majority of the campsites cannot be reserved and function on a ‘first come, first served basis’. The ones that can be booked get reserved well in advance. The park is huge, it covers over 1,200 square miles and contains three microclimates, consequently each campground is unique. You can’t go wrong with any of them but keep your location in mind when planning your itinerary.
We tent camped at the Rio Grande Village campground and the nights were cold and windy, but the vast night sky provided greater understanding of the minuscule role we play in the universe. This campground has a short nature trail that leads to the river and the base of a small hill. Pack your evening cocktails (don’t forget drinks for the kids!) and climb this small hill before sunset. Look west to catch the light show created by the descending sun and look east to gaze upon the colors of the Sierra del Carmen mountain range…and just breathe.
We traipsed all around the southeast corner of the park the next day and hiked the dusty Boquillas Canyon trail. This trail starts off with a climb then leads down into the canyon. Sunscreen, hats and water are necessary-even in the fall and winter. During the hike we heard singing echoing off the canyon walls and one of my eagle-eyed kids was finally able to locate the source. A small man, tucked away into a cleft of the canyon on the other side of the river, waved and continued to serenade us. Later, we came across a jar with a note stating he was ‘the singing Jesus’ and accepted donations. We happily left a little something for Jesus.
Post hike we drove to the Boquillas Crossing. When I was a kid, this was a very fluid, unofficial area where you paid for a small boat to ferry you across the river into Mexico. It is now an official port of entry with specific operating days and times. You will still pay for a small boat to ferry you across, but you need to carry your passport and must check in with immigration officials on both the American and Mexican side.
After your brief boat ride, climb onto a burro and ride into the village, tip the locals for their assistance, buy a few hand-made items, tour the church and eat at one of the two restaurants (they usually are not open at the same time so the choice is easy).
The next day we drove into the central fortress of the park–the Chisos Mountains. Standing tall above the desert floor, they form their own microclimate containing pine trees, mountain lions and black bears. We did the Window Trail hike early in the morning. The beginning is primarily downhill and it gets a little tricky at the creek crossing, but even the six year old was able to navigate it successfully. The view at the end of the trail is worth it. Upon arrival, sit down and bask in the warmth radiating off the boulders, observe the changing play of light and shadow through the ‘window’ and just enjoy each other’s company for a while.
Before returning to our campsite for the evening, we drove to the start of the Hot Springs Historic Trail. This short walk meanders by the stone ruins of an old resort, ancient Native American petroglyphs and ends at the remains of a bathhouse. Let the hot, healing water soothe your tired limbs; this was as close to a bath as we got during our trip.
The northeast part of the park was our last leg of this journey and we took the Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive to get there. This thirty mile paved road highlights spectacular geological features and at its terminus is the stunning Santa Elena Canyon Trail. This trail leads you up several short switchbacks and then gradually descends to the banks of the river. Look up at the towering canyon walls above you and as the wind rustles through the river reeds, listen for the ancient greetings of the Native Americans watching you from above.
Post hike, we stopped at the small historic town of Terlingua. This dusty, sandy strip of inhabitation is home to quirky eclectics, creatives, hermits and worth a visit. It even contains a bonafide ghost town that our kids found fascinating. Most of us were also thankful to see the plethora of restaurants to choose from for lunch. Note: I will pay you money if you can convince my crew to eat sandwiches for more than three days in a row.
There is so much to do in Big Bend and each of our trips build upon the previous ones. One day I will be able to say that I have done every single thing I ever wanted to do in Big Bend National Park but until that day I will continue to heed the call of wide open spaces…..of Texas deserts and mountains….of big luminous sky, right here.
Affordable aventuras is what I was seeking when I started planning a trip to the Mexican Yucatan for winter break. Jungles, pyramids, beaches and the whispers of ancient civilizations were calling. I checked passports, bought very inexpensive round-trip tickets to Cancun (scored with a Southwest, non-stop flight) and started planning.
Upon arrival in Cancun, you must go through customs. Knowing at least a little Spanish helps and I suggest you memorize some basic words. If you checked luggage, you will be able to pick it up after customs. You then will be directed to a screening area. The green light indicates you are free to exit. The red light means you were randomly picked for a more extensive screening. I’ve had to participate in the screening and it really is not a big deal.
Upon exit, people offering to assist in one form or another will approach you; if you need help with your luggage, directions or like what they are selling then engage with them. If not, a firm ‘no-thank you’ and minimal eye contact is enough. Keep the kids close, know where you are going and proceed. I recommend booking your transportation from the airport a head of time, especially if you have young children. Wandering around trying to book a shuttle with tired kids in tow is a hassle and probably not the best way to start any trip.
We stayed in Cancun’s Zona Hotelera the first night because we arrived in the evening. We did not want to drive to our Airbnb, located outside of Cancun, at night. You can find some pretty amazing deals in this area for all-inclusive resorts but again-I was craving adventuras, so we did not stay long.
The car rental company met us at the hotel the next morning, and then we were off to our Airbnb in Chan Chemuyil. Navigating to highway 307 (Carr Cancun-Tulum) was fine, but prepare for a general disregard of safety and speed limits from other drivers. Do not behave this way because you will be inviting the police to stop you. Drive defensively, again know where you are going and ALWAYS wear seat belts. Highway 307 is a major highway, well maintained and well labeled. You can use buses or collectivos (vans that travel up and down highway 307, pay as you go) to get around, but I wanted this trip to be on our own time-line so we rented a car.
After picking up groceries and getting acquainted with our rental, we then went exploring. Geologically, this part of Mexico is composed of porous limestone bedrock, which has collapsed in many places to form thousands of sinkholes. Most of these sinkholes are filled with fresh water and they form a series of connections to underground rivers that eventually flow out to the sea. These sinkholes are called cenotes, which is a Mayan word. Historical evidence shows these openings to the underground rivers were sacred to the Mayans and upon visiting one you can certainly understand why.
Literally a few blocks away from our rental was the Xunaan-Ha cenote, one of the lesser visited ones. We shared this mystical fern encrusted, emerald-green pool with just one other family during our visit. Bring your goggles or snorkeling gear because there are lots of fish to get acquainted with. It is pretty deep in some areas and if you explore the container walls of the cenote you will find the underwater cave entrance. Remember, you are in a pretty remote area and use common sense, just because the cave entrance is there doesn’t mean it is safe to enter. Keep this in mind through out your travels in Mexico.
My family’s first visit to a cenote was magical, the lush jungle setting absorbs sound and creates a serene quiet swimming experience. However, this was interrupted by loud shouts of pure joy as the kids took turns jumping from the sketchy looking diving platform. We visited multiple cenotes on this trip and each was unique. Don’t just go to the most popular ones; seek out some of the lessor known ones-I promise you it will be worth your time.
Also close by was Xcacel beach, a favorite among the locals. Picture a beautiful, remote Caribbean beach with a jungle cenote steps away from the shoreline and that is Xcacel. There is snorkeling at the north end of the beach and we could have spent all of our time here and been perfectly content with the trip. However, the ancient ruins and pyramids were calling.
The Tulum ruins are one of the most popular Mayan vestiges in Mexico. Note, the entrance line can be very long and it is usually hot and humid. So get here early, bring cold drinks and a bathing suit to swim in the sea afterwards. Tulum is the only coastal Mayan city historians know of and evidence shows it was used as a seaport for trade. This Mayan walled city situated on a tall cliff overlooking the Caribbean Sea is enchanting.
I found the figures and faces chiseled into stone particularly striking.
We also visited Coba, another ancient Mayan city, but this one is located in the jungle. Only small portions of these ruins have been cleared by archaeologists and as you walk through, remember that when you see the small hills around you. Those are most likely ruins underneath. This place is as mystical as Chichen Itza and if you stop and listen you can hear the ancestors speaking.
Coba is a very large area so wear sturdy footwear because you are going to do some walking and climbing. Bikes are available for rental as well.
We paid for a guided tour of the front area only and enjoyed learning about the structures and customs that were practiced. We toured the rest of the ruins by ourselves.
Historians estimate that as many as 50,000 people may have inhabited this city. There are several pyramids and the tallest one, Nohoch Mul, is 138 feet. You should climb it because the view from the top is beautiful. Use caution coming down because the steps are steep and small, there is a guide rope you can use if needed.
The large pyramid was most of the family’s favorite but I found the series of interconnected roads fascinating. The roads are called sacbe, and the longest one is more than 60 miles long and leads to another Mayan city. Here is a great article from the Yucatan Times about them. They were used for trade commerce and are made of white stone that illuminates in the moonlight so they could be utilized at night. The complexity of the planning that went into this entire site is astonishing. It is proof the study of urban planning and development goes back much further in time than most of us think.
In summary, the Mexican Yucatan is where you can immerse yourself in ancient cultures and history, walk till you drop through jungles and swim in the birthplace of underground rivers. It is the perfect climate during winter and offers something for everyone in the family. Prepare to be amazed.
Side note: my kids were on a Nacho Libre kick and streamed this movie on Netflix every night while on this trip. They eventually talked us into buying them lucha libre masks, which they proceeded to wear everywhere coupled with movie quotes…“I only believe in science” …“Summon your eagle powers” …“Sometimes you wear stretchy pants in your room-just for fun”. Yeah-shout out to Jack Black, fun times.
Whenever my family craves saltier air, I schedule a quick trip to the Texas Gulf Coast. I grew up in the Galveston area- eating raw oysters opened by my dad with his ever-ready pocket knife, fishing the red runs in the fall and learning how to identify all the flags on the ships going in and out of the ship channel. I also learned how to avoid stingrays and sharks when in the surf * and this has been very useful knowledge during our travels.
Galveston is an interesting area because it has so much Texas history to explore. There is evidence the area was originally inhabited seasonally by the nomadic Karankawa people.
In the early 1800’s, the French pirate Jean Lafitte developed a pirate colony on the island titled Campeche. It is rumored he buried treasure somewhere near this site right before he was forced by the American government to flee the island.
In 1821, there was a battle between the Karankawa and Lafitte’s men known as the “Battle of the Three Trees”, a State Historical Marker at the end of Stewart Road commemorates it. It is a sad story of stolen women, retaliation and death.
Very close to this marker you will find the Stewart Mansion, built in 1926, literally on the site of the battle. This area of the island is also where the Karankawas had their camps. Lots of ghost stories circulate about this plot of land as you can imagine. The tales of disembodied voices, floating orbs and ghostly apparitions are endless and anyone who grew up in the area circa 1960s-2017 can probably share personal experiences about their visit to Stewart Mansion as a teenager. Prior to 2017, the mansion was only in remains and it was a fascinating place to explore. You can still find pictures of it online and while the property has always been private property, it my understanding that it is now inaccessible and has been undergoing renovations.
At the other end of the island, you can find the remains of Jean Lafitte’s headquarters, which he called Maison Rouge because it was painted red. This house was situated to oversee the port of entry area of the island.
If you are in the area of the Maison Rouge, be sure to visit the Texas Seaport Museum and the 1877 ELISSA ship (I do not know why she is titled in all caps but she is). Have lunch or dinner on the strand. Our kids also enjoyed the Galveston Railroad Museum when they were small. There is a display of old-fashioned telephone booths and it was here where my boys learned what a rotary phone was.
Take a drive down Broadway Avenue and stop at some of the historical homes open to the public. The Bishop’s Palace is worth a stop as is the Moody Mansion (I got married here!).
Of course you should spend time on the beach, fish, canoe the bayous, bike or roller blade the seawall, surf, boogie board, relax, ride the Port Bolivar ferry, eat delicious seafood (see the blackened redfish recipe below) and maybe even do a little treasure hunting. Galveston island can easily fill a 2-3 day agenda or even longer.
*Shuffle feet in the shallows to avoid stepping on a ray; do not swim at dawn or dusk and avoid wearing anything glittery into the water to avoid sharks in the surf.
Gracy, David B. II (1964) “Jean Lafitte and the Karankawa Indians,” East Texas Historical Journal: Vol. 2: Iss. 1, Article 9. Available at: http://scholarworks.sfasu.edu/ethj/vol2/iss1/9
“Jean Laffite” accessed December 2, 2018; https://tshaonline.org/handbook/online/articles/
Butter, melted (enough to brush over each fillet)
Olive oil (monounsaturated option-heart healthy)
Lemon, cut into slices for service
Preheat large skillet to very hot, turn on the range hood/fan
Brush each side of fillet with melted butter; follow by seasoning each side of fillet generously with the blackened seasoning.
Carefully place fillet(s) into pan, drizzle olive oil (or more butter) over each fillet. Note: lots of smoke and sizzling here
Cook until bottom of fillet is charred, turn fillet over and repeat step.