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Today’s post is part of a weekly series called “Travel Toss-Up,” in which we ask you to take your pick between two amazing travel experiences.

This week’s toss-up offers a choice of two unique geological formations.

Would you rather…

… visit an ice cave in Vatnajokull, Iceland, or …

ice cave vatnajokull iceland



… swim in a cenote in Mexico?

ik kil cenote chichen itza mexico


Over the winter months, visitors to southern Iceland can get a one-of-a-kind glimpse of Vatnajokull Glacier by taking a tour of its ice caves with a tour company such as Extreme Iceland or LocalGuide.is. Cenotes — sinkholes where groundwater has been exposed — are common in the Yucatan Peninsula of Mexico; pictured above is one of the most popular, Ik-Kil, located in Chichen Itza.

Photos: 9 Places You Haven’t Been — But Should

Vote for your preference in the comments below!

– written by Sarah Schlichter

cabo san lucasNot every destination makes a stellar first impression. Misunderstandings happen, plans fall through, expectations are dashed. And nowhere in recent memory did I find that truer than in Cabo San Lucas.

I had high hopes before I arrived in this happening resort town on the Mexican Riviera. As a celebrity magazine addict, I knew that Cabo was considered the perfect spot for A-listers to blow off steam: Justin Timberlake plays golf there, George Clooney celebrates birthdays, the Kardashians do what Kardashians do. Jennifer Aniston comes so often that she might as well be on the tourist brochure.

But I forgot that they don’t go where I went, which, unfortunately, was straight to Medano Beach. I knew from the moment I arrived at a popular beachfront restaurant there that I had chosen … poorly.

I ordered a margarita, singular. Little did I know this was an impossible request in Cabo. A waiter arrived bearing two aquarium-sized glasses. “No, no, just one,” I told him nicely.

“No, lady. Two is better!” he replied. We went back and forth over my request for a while, until he finally took the unsolicited beverage away. (At that point, I was so irritated by his persistent upselling that I almost needed the second drink.)

That wasn’t the end to the Medano madness. Within a few hours, I was hassled by timeshare salesmen, encouraged to smile by water taxi drivers and offered illegal drugs. I saw more ugly tattoos than on an episode of “Jersey Shore,” and it wasn’t even spring break. The last straw came when I slipped on one of Cabo’s steeper streets, landing firmly on my rear.

“I hate Cabo,” I texted to my husband.

Luckily, I had time for a do-over; subsequent days there exposed me to the city’s first-class adventure opportunities, including kayaking and snorkeling with Baja Outback, parasailing with Cabo Expeditions and a camel safari with Cabo Adventures (yes, camels! It’s become the company’s number one excursion). I even found some great places to go on Medano to escape the nuttiness free-for-all, including Nikki Beach (for those who like Miami style) and Tabasco Beach (for those who like feet-in-the-sand style). I have a list of things to do if and when I come back, including visits to San Jose del Cabo and Todos Santos and a deep-water fishing excursion.

Learn More About Mexico

But the experience made me think about the best ways to handle a new destination if it isn’t exactly what you expected:

Switch gears: The best thing I could have done after the margarita skirmish was hightail it out of Medano on a water taxi to the Marina, a less pushy part of the city. If you’re in a neighborhood that’s rubbing you the wrong way, try another one — stat.

Blow off steam: Zip-lining wasn’t what you expected? Don’t stomp back to the hotel angrily. If time allows, walk around, do some shopping or enjoy a snack at an establishment that looks more your speed. Being able to calm down and look at the situation with some distance will usually turn it into an amusing memory rather than a trip-wrecking horror.

Conduct a post-mortem, part I: That night, make the effort to talk to a few fellow travelers, either at your hotel or a local bar. What have they done that you haven’t? Swapping stories means you can unearth valuable intel that may allow you to make out better the next day.

Conduct a post-mortem, part II: Once you’re home, go online and see if others have had your experience. (Our forums are a great place to chat with other travelers.) Did they have the same issues you did, or did you just happen to catch that attraction or neighborhood on a bad day? Keep in mind that factors like weather, local strikes and staff turnover can vary the experience significantly.

When Destinations Disappoint

Maybe it’s you. We all have bad days. Maybe you’re not feeling well, or maybe your travel companions are working your last nerve. If you set out for the day with a monster chip on your shoulder, don’t be surprised if the slightest thing knocks it off — and really, who’s to blame for that but yourself?

Tell us! How have you salvaged a poor experience in a new destination?

– written by Chris Gray Faust

upside down house polandYes, we’re seasoned world travelers, but that doesn’t mean we aren’t occasionally enamored with kitschy roadside attractions. Be they weird landmarks, supernatural places, wonky museums or crazy theme parks, there are lots of curiosities that appeal to our roving sense of wonder.

Take, for instance, this sampling of some of the oddest homes we’ve found, both in the United States and abroad. Perhaps you’ll feel like making a pit stop on your next journey.

Beer Can House: Houston, TX
Former owner John Milkovisch began inlaying rocks, marbles and aluminum on his front and back yards in 1968 after claiming he was tired of taking care of the lawn. Aluminum roofing and siding followed over an 18-year period. The strangest part? The aluminum is all made of beer cans — including the beer-can-lid garland that hangs from the roof. It gets a bit noisy when the wind blows, but the material evidently cuts down on energy costs. After Milkovisch’s death in 1988, the Orange Show Center for Visionary Art took it on as a restoration project, and it’s open to visitors on weekend afternoons.

Nautilus House: Mexico City, Mexico
A couple in Mexico City hired an architect to aid them in building themselves a home — a home that just happens to look like a giant seashell. Complete with a giant stained-glass window and several other porthole-like openings, the home is bit reminiscent of Alice in Wonderland, boasting tiny vegetation-lined paths that wend between rooms, all of which are furnished with cartoonish furniture that’s fit for a hobbit.

12 Great Museums You’ve Never Heard Of

Whimzeyland: Safety Harbor, FL
This home, purchased in 1985 as a plain-looking dwelling by current occupants (and artists) Todd Ramquist and Kiaralinda, is cheerfully decorated with bright colors and knickknacks galore. Among bottle trees and other whimsical found objects are the dozens of bowling balls that can be seen throughout the grounds’ landscaping. Years ago, the pair obtained bowling balls for free at a local flea market and used them to liven up the place, painting more dismally colored ones for an even more happy effect.

Upside-Down House: Szymbark, Poland
At this dizzying property, visitors can walk around inside the structure’s upside-down rooms, which allegedly mess with the equilibria of many. Designed by Daniel Czapiewski to represent the fall of communism, it was reportedly cumbersome for builders to complete, due to the topsy-turvy nature of, well, just about everything. Bonus: If you turn your camera upside down before snapping a selfie, it’ll look like you’re hanging from the ceiling.

Winchester Mystery House: San Jose, CA
Built by Sarah Winchester, the wife of William Wirt Winchester (as in Winchester rifles), the mansion cost $5.5 million to build and contains 160 rooms. Construction went on for years as Sarah claimed she needed to accommodate the spirits of those who died at the hands of the guns her husband helped to produce. It’s now a major tourist attraction that features a museum, a restaurant and expensive tours. Hours vary seasonally.

Photos That’ll Make You Want to Get Up and Go

Which of these crazy houses would you most want to visit? Share your thoughts in the comments below.

– written by Ashley Kosciolek

Each month, we’ll highlight one new trip review submitted by an IndependentTraveler.com reader. If your review is featured, you’ll win an IndependentTraveler.com logo item!

copper canyon train mexicoIn this month’s featured review, reader vagabondginger shares the highlights of a seven-day trip through the Copper Canyon region of Mexico. “We boarded the El Chepe train in El Fuerte to the Posada Barrancas stop, winding through tunnels and across bridges,” wrote vagabondginger. “It goes from sea level to 8,000 feet in 150 miles. Barranca del Cobre or The Copper Canyon is actually several canyons and its gigantic gorges are larger and deeper than the Grand Canyon, but it is different as it is more verdant.”

Read the rest of vagabondginger’s review here: Copper Canyon Trip Nov 23-29, 2013. Vagabondginger has won an IndependentTraveler.com duffel bag!

Feeling inspired? Write your own trip review!

– written by Dori Saltzman

Suffering from the Monday doldrums? For everyone out there facing the beginning of another work week, here’s a little jolt of wanderlust to brighten up your morning. Each Monday, we offer a photo of a spectacular place to spark ideas for your future travels.

This week’s shot captures colorful hammocks for sale at a market in Mexico.

hammocks market mexico


Traveling During Mexico’s Independence Day

Send us your best travel shot! E-mail your most beautiful or captivating travel photo to feedback@independenttraveler.com. (Please put Monday Inspiration in the subject line.)

The Best 9 Cities to See Cool Public Art

– written by Sarah Schlichter

merida independence day grito de doloresImagine how many insights travelers to the United States would glean about the American character if they visited during our Independence Day celebrations on July 4.

They’d pick up some of our essential values, such as patriotism (flying of flags), love for family and community (reunions, BBQs, hometown parades), distrust for institutional authority (setting off fireworks, both legal and illegal) and occasional stupidity (ER visits because of the aforementioned fireworks). Not to mention all of those sales (pursuit of happiness?).

Of course, we’re not the only country that celebrates an Independence Day. So when I found out that I’d be traveling in Mexico over its holiday (held on September 16 — not Cinco de Mayo as many people think), I saw it as a chance to dive a bit deeper into our southern neighbor’s national psyche.

My trip to Merida, a colonial city in Yucatan that’s popular with expats, also reminded me that visiting countries during their holidays can require a few schedule (and attitude) adjustments. Here are some tips I picked up.

Read up. Before you go, it helps to learn about the country’s history. A bit of research taught me that Mexico’s struggle for freedom from Spain was just as arduous — if not more so — as our break with Britain. For one thing, the war lasted 11 years, from 1810 to 1821, compared to our eight. And Spain had been in control of the colony since 1521, establishing dominance for nearly 300 years (talk about fighting the power).

The centerpiece of Mexican Independence Day is called the Grito de Dolores, a symbolic re-creation of the beginning of the revolution. It’s broadcast nationwide from Dolores, the small town in central Mexico where it all began. On the night of September 15, crowds gather in city public squares throughout Mexico to ring bells and watch fireworks. Having a little knowledge about the first Grito, issued as a call to arms by a Roman Catholic priest named Miguel Hidalgo y Costilla, made the event more special for me.

The Best 9 Cities to See Cool Public Art

Expect crowds — and closures. I arrived in Cancun on September 14, the Saturday before the holiday. The airport was even more packed than usual, with Mexicans arriving from overseas to celebrate the holiday at home or taking advantage of the three-day weekend to go on short trips outside the country.

Once I arrived in Merida, I learned that some attractions I’d planned on visiting, such as the Noche Mexicana, a folk festival usually held on Saturday evenings, would not be taking place. Some roads were also closed to through traffic, which meant taking a cab to the Plaza Grande was out of the question (luckily, it was a short walk from my hotel).

Tip generously. Not everyone has Independence Day off, of course. Because of the increased crowds, the day was business as usual — and then some — for people who work in the hospitality industry. If you know that you are keeping your driver, tour operator or server from being with their families on their national holiday, it’s a nice gesture to make your tip a little more special. After all, wouldn’t you want visitors to the States to do the same?

merida independence dayTake part. After checking with my concierge to make sure it was safe, I headed out to the Independence Day festivities around 10 p.m. Sunday night. The streets were packed with revelers, mostly families, and the restaurants on the Plaza Grande were full. After grabbing a mango sherbet at Sorbeteria Colon, which has been serving sweet treats since 1907, I positioned myself on a bench to people watch (the giggling teenagers with the fake moustaches — a tribute to the bushy revolutionaries — were particularly entertaining).

I didn’t have long to wait. After the Grito at 11 p.m., the crowd erupted into cheers. “Vivan los heroes que nos dieron patria!” the chant started, before naming some of the country’s founding fathers. “Viva nuestra independencia! Viva Mexico! Viva!

At the end of the third “Viva Mexico,” fireworks shot into the sky. The national anthem started to play, and the people around me started singing. I found myself moved by their obvious love for their country, and realized that patriotism — as opposed to its more sinister cousin, nationalism — is a beautiful thing to watch, regardless of your passport.

4 Unique Activities to Do in Riviera Maya, Mexico

– written by Chris Gray Faust

 Le Blanc Spa ResortEvery Tuesday, we’ll feature the best travel bargain we’ve seen all week right here, on our blog. Be the first to find out which deals make the cut by subscribing to our blog or signing up for our weekly deals newsletter.

The Deal: After all the cooking, wrapping and relatives, you might be seeking a soothing kind of post-holiday vacation. Our advice? Relax and say “Spaah” at Le Blanc, an all-inclusive luxury resort in Mexico, and enjoy $1,500 worth of dinners, spa treatments, games of golf and more — for free.

Cancun’s Le Blanc Spa Resort is offering up to $1,500 in resort credit with stays of five to eight nights through December 2012. Stay four nights and receive $750 in resort credit, or stay three nights and receive $500 in resort credit. You can use the credit toward a long list of special perks that aren’t covered by the resort’s all-inclusive rates, like a dolphin swim excursion, spa treatments, a romantic lobster dinner on the beach, room upgrades, Champagne and wine, and even wedding packages.

If destination nuptials aren’t on your 2012 to-do list, you can still enjoy the much-lauded service and plush accommodations at LeBlanc. The resort is ranked number one out of 169 Cancun hotels on our sister site TripAdvisor, and it was even selected as one of TripAdvisor’s 2011 Travelers’ Choice winners. The adults-only beachfront property features five restaurants, two golf courses, three outdoor pools, and a fitness center that offers yoga and Pilates classes.

The Catch: LeBlanc is an all-inclusive luxury resort, which means it’s not exactly the best place to go for a bargain-basement vacation. The lowest rates we found came to $296 per person, per night for an autumn stay. Prices are more expensive in winter and early spring.

The Competition: JW Marriott, Renaissance and Marriott Resorts are offering $100 in resort credit plus a free companion ticket with their “Stay Here, Fly There” promotion. This deal isn’t valid in Mexico, but you can snag the offer at select properties in other balmy beach destinations like Florida, California, Texas and Hawaii.

Find these bargains and more money-saving offers in our Hotel Deals.


– written by Caroline Costello

cozumel cabana seaEvery Tuesday, we’ll feature the best travel bargain we’ve seen all week right here, on our blog. Be the first to find out which deals make the cut by subscribing to our blog or signing up for our weekly deals newsletter.

The Deal: Not ready to stow those summer flip-flops for another year? Grab your sandals and book a fall or winter trip to someplace sunny and warm — and save up to $550 in the process. Funjet Vacations is currently offering a special 72-hour sale on air/hotel or hotel-only trips to Mexico, the Caribbean and Hawaii.

The more you spend on your vacation, the more you save. For example, if your total trip cost is between $1,500 and $2,000, you’ll get a discount of $115. Raise the total to between $2,001 and $3,000, and you’ll save $200. You get the picture. For the maximum discount of $550, you’ll have to spend at least $6,001.

The Catch: This isn’t the type of sale you can mull over for a week or two before booking. Come this Thursday at 6 p.m. CT, it’ll be gone — so make your decision and act quickly.

The Competition: Hyatt is offering up to $500 in resort credit at participating properties in Aruba, Cancun, Maui, Key West and other sunny destinations. Unlike the Funjet discount, which reduces the total cost of your trip, this credit is like free extra cash that you can spend on spa treatments, meals and activities at your resort.

Find these bargains and more money-saving offers in our Vacation Package Deals.

– written by Sarah Schlichter

Mexico‘s gotten a bad rap lately. Most people hear the name and automatically think violence. But the truth is, while certain cities in Mexico are unsafe right now, like Ciudad Juarez, there are many areas, like Cancun, Riviera Maya and Playa Del Carmen, that could be considered some of the safest travel destinations in the Caribbean. Even if that doesn’t ease your mind, consider this: the distance from Ciudad Juarez to the Riviera Maya is more than 2,100 miles. That’s greater than the distance from Dallas, TX, to Detroit, MI. You wouldn’t tell a foreigner not to come to the U.S. because Detroit can be dangerous.

The Riviera Maya, located on the eastern portion of the Yucatan Peninsula, is one of the most eco-friendly destinations in all of Mexico, with a strong emphasis on sustainability and preserving the environment. The area, which is home to many historic sites, is full of beautiful beaches with dozens of luxury all-inclusive resorts and many fine dining options. Following are four off-the-beaten-path activities for you to try during your next visit.

8 Warm Weather Winter Vacations

1. Rio Secreto: The longest semi-sunken cave in the Yucatan Peninsula is a stunning, 7.5-mile-long underground river with thousands of ancient stalactites and stalagmites. Before 2007, almost no one had entered Rio Secreto — translated as the “Secret River” — except for the man who first found it. But now, there are guided tours available (starting at $59) that allow you to hike and swim through a 600-meter route, providing you access to some of the most dramatic mineral formations in the world. (See RioSecretoMexico.com.)

rio secreto cave riviera maya



2. Annual Whale Shark Festival: The Mesoamerican Barrier Reef, the second largest barrier reef in the world, extends along the coast of the northern tip of the Yucatan Peninsula and continues south alongside the Riviera Maya, making the area a hot spot for scuba divers and snorkelers. But if you’re looking for something truly unique, attend the annual Whale Shark Festival in July. Guests can swim with whale sharks, the largest fish in the ocean and an endangered species. The festival kicks off with the whale shark afuera, when hundreds of these gentle giants migrate near the coast of Isla Mujeres. (See WhaleSharkFest.com.)

whale shark



3. Water Journey at Grand Velas Spa: This hour-long relaxation ritual in the Water Lounge of the Grand Velas Riviera Maya Spa is built around the use of eight specially designed water-based facilities (picture a steam room and sauna on steroids). Led by a personal spa valet, the Water Journey is a truly relaxing hydrotherapy experience that alternates between various hot and cold rooms and pools — like the Clay Room, a circular steam room with a fiber-optic “starlight” ceiling, and the Ice Room, with floor-to-ceiling windows. You can also recline and relax in the central infinity pool, which has massaging faucets throughout and carved-stone chaises with jets set just underneath the surface of the water. (See RivieraMaya.GrandVelas.com.)

water journey grand velas spa riviera maya



4. Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead): Beginning on October 31 with festivities continuing through November 2, this Mexican holiday, rooted in Aztec culture dating back thousands of years, is marked by lively gatherings, colorful costumes and ancient traditions to honor the souls of the departed. Dia de los Muertos festivities begin with All Saints Day, which honors infants and children, and is commonly referred to as “Dia de los Angelitos,” or “Day of the Little Angels.” Celebrations continue with All Souls Day, which honors adults who have passed on. Though customs vary throughout the country, common traditions include visiting the gravesites of deceased loved ones, building altars in their honor, and offering symbolic tokens such as sugar skulls and marigolds. Visitors to the Riviera Maya can attend the “Life and Death Traditions Festival,” held each year at the eco-archaeological park Xcaret, where festivities include plays, dances, cemetery tours and art exhibitions. (See FestivaldeVidayMuerte.com.)

dia de los muertos life and death traditions festival riviera maya



Find Mexico Travel Deals

– written by Kate Parham

Wyndham Rio Mar Beach ResortEvery Tuesday, we’ll feature the best travel bargain we’ve seen all week right here, on our blog. Be the first to find out which deals make the cut by subscribing to our blog (top right) or signing up for our weekly deals newsletter.

The Deal: Book a stay of five or more nights at a participating Wyndham Resort and get your fifth night’s stay for free. Plus, receive a complimentary $100 American Express Reward Card, which can be used wherever American Express is accepted.

This offer is valid at select resorts in the U.S., the Caribbean and Mexico for travel through the end of the year. You’ll get the biggest bang for your buck by booking this deal at one of Wyndham’s all-inclusive properties, where nightly rates range from about $250 to $500 and cover meals, drinks (even alcoholic ones) and activities. We checked rates for a five-night summer stay at the Viva Wyndham Fortuna Beach in the Bahamas and spotted savings of as much as $524 (the cost of one night’s stay in a deluxe room) in addition to the on-the-house $100 American Express card.

The Catch: Don’t bank on using your American Express card on a glass bottom boat tour or scuba diving lessons while on vacation. Your card will be shipped to your home address six to eight weeks after your completed stay. And keep in mind that when you book, you won’t see immediate savings, as your free night’s stay will be deducted when you check out.

The Competition: We’ve unearthed juicy discounts at several other brand-name hotel chains. Hilton Worldwide Resorts is offering a 30 percent mark-down at select international and domestic properties for stays booked three months in advance. Additionally, Starwood Hotels is running a “Better Tomorrows” promotion that features 40 percent off every second night’s stay at select resorts in North and South America. (Stay two nights and receive 40 percent off one night’s stay, stay four nights and get 40 percent off two nights, etc.)

Find these bargains and more money-saving offers in our Hotel Deals.

–written by Caroline Costello