Amusement Park Adventure: A Fun Weekend Idea for the Family

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We all have been through them—weekends with no real agenda. But for a working mom, it's not very often I am able to spend a weekend without a set of to-do list. 

For most working parents, weekends actually mean extra work days—without pay! Ah, this thankless job called parenting! A Saturday often mean a day to catch up on piled-up laundry, deep-clean the carpet, work with the little one with her school assignments or head out to the fresh market to replenish a dwindling grocery supply.

A Lovely weekend calls for a family trip down to the amusement park at clearwater, florida.

A Lovely weekend calls for a family trip down to the amusement park at clearwater, florida.

For this particular weekend, high up in the to-do list is to de-clutter the little one's room of old clothes and toys and later hit consignment shops so she could earn a dollar or two for her piggy bank. Reselling once-loved toys and clothes is a great incentive to motivate the little one to give up a few of her prized possessions. Any parent with a pre-schooler knows how difficult this process is for any five-year-old with a deep attachment to one-armed Barbie or stained Lalaloopsy dolls. 

photo booth at the park means daddy having more fun than the little one!

photo booth at the park means daddy having more fun than the little one!

While heading out to the closest kids' consignment shop, we passed by an indoor/outdoor amusement park that has a go-kart track. Then, a light bulb switched on: Let's bring Ariana to the park for her first-ever go-kart adventure!   

Celebration Station is a playground for kids and kids-at-heart who love outdoor rides, bumper boats and go-karts.

Celebration Station is a playground for kids and kids-at-heart who love outdoor rides, bumper boats and go-karts.

Where To Go

Celebration Station, located at Clearwater, Florida, is a popular weekend spot for kids and families. In case you are no where near Clearwater, the park is also in a few other states, including Louisiana, North Carolina, Texas and Oklahoma. Indoor, the park offers an area to hold kiddie parties and an arcade full of interactive games. Outdoor, it has a Jurassic Park-inspired mini golf course, bumper boats, playland rides and a go-kart track. 

An all-day go-kart pass would cost $24.99, but since this is the little one's first time and we weren't sure if she would even enjoy the experience, we opted to do a single ride which costs $7.50.  

how high can you jump? eurobungy is a favorite among amusement park lovers.

how high can you jump? eurobungy is a favorite among amusement park lovers.

The Initial Fear

At first, this mama bear was a little worried the little cub may find the experience too scary or the engine noise too loud to actually enjoy the experience. 

What would she make out of other aggressive drivers who would intentionally bump into her and daddy's go-kart in an attempt to overtake them and get ahead? Will she feel petrified half-way through it by its speed? 

the view from the road offers a sneak peek of the thrill and fun awaiting amusement park guests.

the view from the road offers a sneak peek of the thrill and fun awaiting amusement park guests.

The Drive

I was only slightly comforted by the idea that her daddy will be taking control of the wheels and driving in a safe distance and speed in order to ensure this little girl doesn't get traumatized by her first experience. But I should have known better. As soon as other daddy drivers bumped into them, Brian's competitive spirit kicked in and he started racing with other drivers! Goodness!

Sometimes, you just have to feed a hungry dinosaur!

Sometimes, you just have to feed a hungry dinosaur!

As it turned out, I was worried for no reason. At the end of the ride, the little one jumped out of the kart like a pro and exclaimed she enjoyed her first go-kart experience! Silly mommy for even worrying.

Here's the face of a girl thrilled to see dinosaurs in the park.

Here's the face of a girl thrilled to see dinosaurs in the park.

Outdoor Fun

Aside from go-karts, there are several other outdoor activities to enjoy. There's the bumper boats, eurobungy and playland rides. We further explored around and toured its dinosaur-themed mini golf course, which would be a lovely way to introduce the little one to the sport of golf as going through its themed course feels like kiddie play. 

Who's ready to take a shot? hitting the 18th hole in the mini Golf course is dinosaur play.

Who's ready to take a shot? hitting the 18th hole in the mini Golf course is dinosaur play.

Arcade Games

After exploring all the outdoor activities, the little one couldn't resist playing indoor in its arcade. Oh boy, that brought so much fun memories since—before internet, video games and the malls—arcade was the place to be to spend a fun weekend with kids and family! So what's coming up next? Keep an eye out on a future blog post about why you need to let your child explore old-school family entertainment and where to go for a weekend at the arcade when in the sunny city of Tampa.

The indoor arcade is an explosion of bright lights and colors.

The indoor arcade is an explosion of bright lights and colors.

A Trip to the Zoo: The Magic of Meeting the Wildlife

Next to Disney World, nothing gets a kid more excited than the idea of going to the zoo for the first time. Recently, Ariana had her first field trip to the zoo and couldn't contain her excitement. Her entire kindergarten class visited Lowry Park Zoo, a 24-acre facility that houses more than 1,200 wildlife. 

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There were many reasons why the little one was beyond thrilled about this field trip. For one, visiting the zoo is better when you have an exploration buddy, in this case, Gabie, who shared every "ohhs" and "ahhs" at the magical sight of giant elephants, playful tigers and splendid manta rays, just to name a few. 

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Secondly, this little girl was so excited about the trip because she was eager to go on a school bus for the first time. Yes, this trip was a lot of firsts for this five-year-old! She was more than eager to report that her first bus trip was "magical." Only one other thing could possible top that: Being in the zoo itself and seeing all the rare and endangered animals.   

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There are multiple exhibits at Tampa's Lowry Park Zoo, but her favorite is the Safari Africa exhibit. To experience the full exhibit, we hopped on a Safari trolley where a guide drove us around the entire area and pointed out unfamiliar wildlife in each enclosure. We saw okapis, zebras, cheetahs (the little one's favorite!) as well as magnificent African elephants. Lowry Park Zoo is home to three elephants from Swaziland, one from Namibia and two calves born at the zoo. Our guide also noted that the male elephant is always separated from the rest of the herd as he prefers to be solitary.

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When planning a zoo trip with your little one, wait to visit until they are old enough to truly appreciate the full experience. As rookie parents, we made the mistake of taking Ariana too early to the Newport Aquarium in Cincinnati in the pastshe was either uninterested or terrified to see the giant mammals. Learning from our mistake, we made the decision to wait until she's older before bringing her to the zoo. This time around, she enjoyed every bit of the experience, including seeing the gigantic rhinocerous up close. 

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Don't skip the bird sanctuary when in the zoo. The girls were delighted to see different species of birds, including eagles, hornbills and lovely flamingos in bright tangerine color. They were truly a one-of-a-kind sight to see!

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Over at the Florida exhibit, the girls saw the Sunshine State's diverse wildlife, including manatees, crocodiles and the Florida panther. In fact, the girls (above) were simply in awe at these pre-historic-looking creatures.

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Next to the sting ray exhibit is the aquarium for otters. The otter was clearly loving the attention as it kept showing off its amazing swimming and diving skills close to the glass where the kids were huddled to get a closer look at the tiny animal. As clearly shown on the little one's face, she was impressed by the little creature's aquatic performance!

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Aside from its wildlife exhibits, Lowry Park Zoo also has a mini aquarium which displays sea horses, rare schools of fish, turtles and other amphibians.

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Perhaps the highlight of the day was seeing the tiger and her baby cub play and chase each other. It was so adorable to see these wild creatures play hide-and-seek and playfully pounce on each other. It was almost easy to forget these are natural predators that are, in the wild, born to haunt and prey. 

Overall, it was such a wonderful experience for the kids. On the way home, this little girl summed up her day: "Best day ever!"

Beyond Bourbon and Horses: Exploring Lexington One Bite at a Time (Part II)

When visiting Lexington, come hungry. In a short couple of years, the culinary scene in this charming Southern city has gone from grits to gastropubthanks in part to young food-lovers with a sophisticated palate for unique food experiences. Proof to Lexington's continuing growth as a "food, craft beer and bourbon" haven is the number of dining options available, including more than 30 food trucks and well over 100 independently owned restaurants.

In historic Downtown Lexington, several new restaurants have popped up in the past few years, including The Village Idiot, which prides itself of being "Lexington's first gastropub." Housed in what was once a historic post office, the interior has an organic appeal and its food selectionfrom its vast array of craft beers to farm-to-table menuare a delight to the senses. Brian's favorite, of course, is The Idiot burger, a blend of burger meat and pulled pork on a toasted pretzel bun topped with Tillamook Cheddar and an oversized onion ring

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Another one of our favorite burger spots is Bru Burger. Although it is a chain brand by the Cunningham Restaurant Group, it still has a bit of a Southern charm as the chain operates only in the tri-state of Kentucky, Ohio and Indiana. The menu offers a lot of surprises, making it ideal for foodies who love to experiment with their burger. My favorite is the Ahi Tuna burger, but Brian loves to explore new flavors, especially those that have a bit of a kick to the palate, like the Melt Your Face burger sprinkled with habanero sauce.

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Craving for kimchi and bibimbop? We find it generally hard to find great Korean restaurants, but we've enjoyed Seki K Restaurant at Clays Mill Road during the many times we've been there. In fact, after introducing Seki to a few friends, we've converted them to Korean food for life. The interiors are cozy and quite intimate, with just the right amount of Asian touches. The appetizer platter, consisting of 10 side dishes, is a gastronomic experience on its own. If you're worried about anything too spicy or unusual, stick to the all-time favorites like bibimbop, dolsot and kalbi. What makes the place even better is that it's tucked behind Dong Yang Market, an Asian grocery store where you may buy sauces, noodles and homemade kimchi after a lovely lunch or dinner.

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On days when you are in the mood for quick and affordable Chinese food, try Chengs Chinese Restaurant. Located near Seki, Chengs is by far the best hole-in-the-wall Chinese restaurant we've found. Hands down, we have yet to find another place that can rival its crispy General Tso's chicken. It is a delightful mix of sweet and spicy flavors with every bite. Try the homemade dimsum, hot and sour soup and beef with cashew nuts if you want other flavors. Lunch is very affordable, but if you are feeling adventurous, request for the Chef's Special menu. We've heard several friends rave about its eggplant dish, but we have never tried it yet as Brianwho can eat Gator meat and sea urchinrefuses to eat eggplant. Go figure that part out!

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The cold Lexington winter months often call for hot soups, so it's a surprise that there are not that many Ramen-exclusive places around. But during our last visit, we've discovered Ramen Ya! located at S. Broadway. Ramen Ya! offers six different Ramen choices on the menu, all priced at $11. The noodles come in a good-sized bowl, but not large enough for sharing even for us who often split our meals (or we must really just be hungry that night!). I opted for a hot bowl of Shoyu Ramen, a bone soup-based dish with egg, scallion, mushroom, nori, corn and Chasu pork. Brian, of course, opted for the Spicy Ramen, which is just what Captain Cold ordered on a chilly December night in Lexington.

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What better way to wrap up a week at Lexington than going back to one of our favorite Japanese restaurants, Miyako Sushi & Steakhouse. Located at Richmond Road, this Japanese restaurant is often packed, especially during weekend dinners, so reservations are recommended. Although we occasionally order gyoza or Katsudon, we go there primarily for the sushi. Our favorite is the spicy tuna, which has a delightful crunch at the end of every bite. This time around, we also tried their sashimi appetizer, which is a nine-piece sashimi platter of fresh, high-grade tuna, salmon and white fish. It was such a delight to the palate that even Ariana, who is very particular about her food, tried the tuna sashimi for the first time and gave it two thumbs up! It was so unexpectedwe almost teared up as any proud parents would seeing their kid bravely try new things!

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Beyond Bourbon and Horses: Exploring Lexington One Bite at a Time (Part I)

The little one has been missing Lexington, Kentuckyour former home before we moved to the Sunshine Statefor quite sometime now and had been wondering when we'll be home for the holidays. So when a serendipitous moment at work drew Mommy back to Lexington close to the holidays, we decided it's time to pack our bags, hop on a plane and take a family trip. 

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This little girl was, of course, beyond thrilled at the thought of fun sleepovers with her cousins, the possibility of playing in the snow again as well as seeing magnificent horses (whether real or a piece of art) at every turn. Lexington wasn't one to disappointa magnanimous horse painting immediately welcomed the little one while at the airport.  

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Although it is best known for bourbon and horses, there is more to Lexington than distillery and derby. In fact, the best way to experience this charming city is to take one bite at a time. As a food destination, Lexington is underrated, but the food scene here is growing and the younger foodie and bourbon-loving generation is helping to redefine its taste buds with its penchant for food trucks and restaurants that blend organic, craft drinks and vintage. What's our top recommendation if you are visiting the city for the first time? Put the Distillery Districta cluster of local distilleries, hip restaurants and cool barsin your must-experience list so you get a taste of modern-day Lexington's food and social scene.   

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Although Southern cooking is a staple, Lexington never ceases to surprise when it comes to food with cultural influences. One tip that has served us well when searching for best places to eat: Follow the locals. Often, they know where to find the unpretentious, just-plain-good food unknown to many tourists. One local favorite is Sahara Mediterranean Cuisine along Fieldstone Way. One sign it has good food? Lunch often means long queues that stretch outside its door. But who's complaining? For many locals, it's a small price to pay for the promise of a delicious serving of lamb and beef kebab with hummus, Greek salad, pine-roasted rice and pita bread.

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When it comes to upper-scale Cuban food, you can always count on Brasabana to deliver. Located at Lane Allen Road, Brasabana offers Latin favorites with a bit of an island flair. For instance, instead of the expected tortilla chips and salsa, Brasabana serves complimentary plantain chips, something I enjoy in flavor far better than traditional corn chips since the plantain's hint of sweetness offers a nice contrast to the salsa's citrusy flavor.

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I suggest starting your Cuban meal experience with Empanadas (Brian raves about them) or Papas Rellenes (Cuban-style potato and meatballs). We've tried the Peruvian Chicken and Havana Nueva (both good), but as creatures of habit, Brian and I often have a hard time deviating from our all-time favorite: Carnitas. The slow-roasted chunks of pork have a crispy exterior and remind me of flavors from back home in the Philippines, while the pickled onions and peppers elevate the taste a notch higher.

There's more food adventures ahead in Part II of this travel feature, including a new food spot that exclusively serves Ramen (perfect on days with bone-chilling temperatures), a Southern resto-chain that serves unique burgers (Ahi tuna burger, anyone?) and a Japanese restaurant where every sushi on a plate is a work of art.

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Sponge Docks: A Little Taste of Greece (Part II)

For the uninitiated, the little quaint community at the Sponge Docks has long been known as the Greek Village because of its storied history. When early entrepreneurs discovered the profitability of harvesting and selling sponges, experienced Greek divers flocked to the Bayou to help create Tarpon Spring's sponge industry. Today, it's easy to have your full senses delighted by what you see, touch, smell, hear and taste at Florida's "Little Greece."

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TOUCH: At the Greek Village at the Sponge Docks, there are more than 100 unique shops to visit. It's an "Adult Disneyland" for the souvenir-shopper as there's always a little treasure worth bringing homewhether that's a rainbow collection of starfishes, handmade bomb soaps, a miniature sponge diver sculpture or a hand-carved wooden pelican that would make a lovely decor by the porch. 

Madhatters: Ariana and daddy tested out  the silly hats sold at one of the novelty shops.

Madhatters: Ariana and daddy tested out  the silly hats sold at one of the novelty shops.

SEE: When shopping along its rows of boutiques and novelty shops, take in every color and view. You'll be amazed by the contrasts of organic, neutral palette that evokes a farmhouse-feel in some of its shops to the explosion of colors of many of its trinkets, like the nut-made bracelets above.

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SMELL: It's impossible not to be drawn in by the shops' lovely aroma of handmade soaps, many of them made with olive and essential oils. One of our favorite shops around the block is Getaguru, which has the most fragrant lavender and peppermint soap we've ever found. Over at The Sponge Factory, be sure to grab a jar of the locally made body scrub in delicious scents. Ariana couldn't resist the Cotton Candy scrub, and mommy is not complaining as it left my hand ultra-soft.

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HEAR: Hear trivia about Tarpon Springs and how sponges are harvested while you enjoy the brief documentary movie inside its sponge factories. Who knew the place was first called Bayou before Mary Ormond, the daughter of the Bayou's early settler, named it Tarpon Springs after the magnificent fish that inhabited its waters?

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TASTE: You can never claim you've been at the Sponge Docks unless you've delighted in authentic Greek food. There are more than 10 restaurants and bakeries to choose from, some features live entertainment, belly dancing and authentic Greek music. There's Costas, which offers breakfast on the docks during weekends, Rusty Bellies Waterfront Seafood for either a serving of gyro or fresh-catch-of-the-day, and The Original Mama Maria's where the calamari is to-die-for. What better way to cap a Greek weekend adventure? With desserts, of course. Stop over at Hellas Bakery. We guarantee, you won't be able to resist the delightful desserts!

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EXPERIENCE: To get the full experience, don't just have the customary photo shoot at the diver's booth at The Sponge Factory, but take the cruise experience to see sponge divers in action, go dolphin-watching or spend the entire day sport-fishing on a rented boat.

At the Sponge Docks, there is no shortage of things to do. The only thing short in this little paradise is, you guessed it, time. 

Sponge Docks: A Little Taste of Greece (Part I)

When I think of Greece, I think of its storied history, temple ruins, mythical gods and undeniable beauty, much like Helen of Troy, "the face that launched a thousand ships" in Greek mythology. The beautiful island of Greece is definitely on the family's bucket list of places to see, so when we heard of a little Greek community at the Sponge Docks at Tarpon Springs along Tampa Bay, Florida, we took the opportunity to experience a little taste of Greece.  

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A trip to the Sponge Docks from where we live is a short 30-minute drive, making it ideal for a quick Saturday family adventure. Despite what mythical stories may tell you, there is no Greek tragedy here. The Sponge Docks came into being after John Cheney discovered the business potential of selling sponges harvested from Florida's rich ocean floor. Cheney was an associate of a wealthy entrepreneur named Hamilton Disston who, in 1880, saved the state of Florida from bankruptcy by purchasing four million acres of land (Tarpon Springs included) from the government.

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By 1890, the sponge industry was firmly established at Tarpon Springs. With news of a growing sponge industry, Tarpon Spring's population grew as experienced sponge divers from Greece were soon after hired to help meet a growing market demand. Along with this, tourism exploded as more tourists were eventually drawn to the Sponge Docks to purchase sponges, see the divers in action and indulge in authentic Greek food. 

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As more and more Greek divers came to Tarpon Springs for work, they later created a community that continued to celebrate the Greek way of life. Today, a life-sized statue of a sponger stands tall to honor the early divers who helped put Tarpon Springs on the world map as the "Sponge Capital of the World."

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Sponges are aquatic animals that cling to a rock or coral. When harvesting, divers gently squeeze out the gurry, a gelatinous substance found in sponges. They then pound and clean the sponges on the ship's deck. Be warned: You'll likely get a whiff of rotten smell while walking by a ship with drying sponges. While the sponges' skin is drying, heat releases a gas that causes a salty, dead-fish smell.

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Today, the Sponge Docks offers a lot of quirky finds, including decorated bicycles randomly displayed throughout the street, which are actually art installations by a local artist named Warren Gregory who was inspired to create art bikes from his time in Amsterdam. Visitors and diners may also enjoy acoustic music al fresco-style, with a view of the calm sea, docks and ships. Who could possibly resist a nice glass of wine, gyro or baklava with a stunning view?

Clockwise: Ariana with her Papaw Arvil at The sponge factory; playing with puppets sold at one of the gift shops and with the rest of the family for a customary photo shoot in front of the divers' memorial.

Clockwise: Ariana with her Papaw Arvil at The sponge factory; playing with puppets sold at one of the gift shops and with the rest of the family for a customary photo shoot in front of the divers' memorial.

At the Sponge Docks, there are surprises at every turn. There are many more to this adventure so keep an eye out of Part II of this travel diary.

4 Reasons Why You Need to Put Mexico on Your Wellness Travel List

Just-turned-three Ariana catching the waves at Playa del Carmen, Mexico.

Just-turned-three Ariana catching the waves at Playa del Carmen, Mexico.

Next to the Philippines, Mexico is the second country Ariana had been on an international trip. She just turned three when we went to Playa del Carmen, one of Mexico's famed beach areas and more family-friendly than its neighbor, Cancun, a spring break favorite.

For many years, Mexico has a way of luring in the urban traveler with its natural landscape, Mayan ruins and Spanish-inspired culture. In fact, data from the Mexican Tourism Board estimates that from January to October last year, roughly 28.5 million tourists have traveled to explore Mexico.

But there's more to this tourist-favorite than the usual "been there, done that" experiences. For one, Mexico is slowly becoming a top destination of choice among wellness travelers seeking a quiet escape to reconnect with their inner selves.

Why should you add Mexico to your wellness travel bucket list? Here are four good reasons:

1. Affordable yoga retreat options

For many travelers, Mexico's appeal is its wide range of all-inclusive packages with price points that meet even those traveling on a limited budget. A quick research online shows yoga retreat centers like The Sanctuary located in Oaxaca, Mexico offers a personal retreat at $50 a day, inclusive of shared accommodation, food and yoga classes. Avoid the peak seasons, especially those that fall on major holidays like Christmas, New Year and Holy Week if you don't want to pay an extra $10 a day for a yoga retreat.

2. Beach meets mindfulness

One of the many reasons why Mexico is popular among tourists is its selection of splendid beaches. If you've never been to Mexico but are looking to combine vacation with moments of mindfulness by the beach, skip the often crowded Cancun and hit Playa del Carmen instead. It is a beachfront town along the Yucatan peninsula that is slowly earning a Euro chic-inspired reputation for its coastal beauty. Here, you don't only "see and be seen," but you also get to roll out your yoga mat and do your daily salutations by the beach, while basking in Mexico's glorious sunsets.

Another town known for its beaches is Tulum, where the popular Mayan ruins can be found. It is a coveted destination for luxury travelers because the place is secluded, giving you a semblance of a private escape while taking in the views of the Caribbean sea.

3. Spiritual awakening in cultural immersion

Mexico's blend of Mesoamerican and Spanish cultures help ensure that every traveler who visits the place gets to experience a unique cultural immersion. For wellness travelers wanting to recharge their chi, this unique culture serves as a wonderful backdrop for a spiritual awakening. After all, mindfulness can also be found in meeting the locals and appreciating Mexico's arts and crafts.

In between yoga sessions, head out to Mexico's mercados (market centers) to find colorful and hand-painted masks by the Hulchol Indians, an ethnic group who live in the Sierra Madre Mountains and known for their unique art pieces and embroidered manta garments. While souvenir shopping, look for intricately made clay pottery, weaved baskets and woodwork as Mexico is also known for these unique crafts.

4. Organic food with a Spanish flair

Mexico is also popular among travelers with a palate for organic and fresh foods. Mercado el 100, located in the trendy Roma neighborhood, is the first certified organic market in Mexico City. Produce sold at the street market are grown within 100 miles from the city; thus, the "100" in its name. Nearby is Mercado Roma, where you may choose foods from several different vendors selling and cooking their specialties next to each other in a packed warehouse space. Communal tables allow you to share meals with locals and traveling strangers brought to the place for similar reason: fresh and authentic Mexican food with a Spanish flair.

Ultimately, however way you want to experience Mexico, there's really only one way to do it right: Let go and get lost so you'll find your inner self in every adventure!

Have you ever been to Mexico? Tell us about your adventure in the comment box below.