Biking on A Mission: Visiting Four Missions in San Antonio Texas

While visiting family in San Antonio, Texas, we decided to rent bikes and ride the trails to visit four different Missions along the San Antonio River. When missionaries came over to the Americas they attempted to convert the indigenous people to Catholicism. The Missions are the communities and churches built surrounding the missionaries efforts and there are five still standing today in San Antonio. The most notable would be the Alamo, famous for the Battle of the Alamo in the early fight for Texas’s independence from Mexico. We visited the Alamo the day before (read about it here) so we started our bike ride from Mission Concepcion. All the missions we visited on our bike ride are active churches today.

We parked our cars at Mission Concepcion then went to look around. A volunteer named David was super helpful explaining some of the historical aspects of the mission. Mission Concepcion is the most well preserved mission of those in San Antonio. While many other missions have been rebuilt how they were before, Mission Concepcion is the least altered with most of what you see today being original. Visitors can explore the courtyard, church and attached buildings learning the histories of what stood there.

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When we were done exploring it was time to figure out how to rent bikes. At each of the missions is a rack of bicycles available for rent from a company called SWell Cycle. The cost for the day is $12 and you have to dock the bikes once every hour along the way. We were able to dock the bikes at each mission so we didn’t have to push them around with us inside. The first leg of our ride was the longest at 3.3 miles from Mission Concepcion to Mission San Jose.

Mission San Jose is probably the best mission to visit if you are only visiting one as it has an (air conditioned) interactive center with a 20 informative minute video on about the origin of the missions and the affect they had on the area. The church is surrounded by a wall of jacales, or small houses, where the Indians the missionaries were able to convert lived. We spent a least hour at San Jose watching the movie and walking around. Behind the church you’ll find the first mill ever built in Texas in about 1794.

After another hot 3 mile long ride we arrived at Mission San Juan. This mission was much smaller than the previous two and we were not able to see the inside of the church. We learned from David at Mission Concepcion that the churches at these missions used to be colorfully painted, a large contrast to the all white facade here at Mission San Juan.

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After a quick break we made our way to the the last 1.9 miles to Mission Espada, the final stop on our trip. This mission was not as large as the others on our ride but the church, built in 1756, was quaint and there was a small store connected. Missionaries worked to make life in the missions resemble that of Spanish villages and Spanish culture.

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If you are planning to make this bike ride through the missions there are a few things you should keep in mind.

  1. It’s hot! – We visited in April and it still got to 90 degrees Fahrenheit, so I’d hate to feel it in the dead of summer. If you’re there in the summer consider going early in the morning
  2. Bring water, drink often!- there are places to fill water bottles at each of the missions but by the end of the trip I was very dehydrated.
  3. Wear suncreen! – Don’t be like me and realize you didn’t put it on before the first leg and end up very burnt.
  4. No admission fees!- The only cost we had for the trip was the bike rentals, the missions are free to enter.
  5. Bring your own helmet! – Helmets aren’t provided so if you’re doing the biking make sure to bring your own.

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Even though I ended up as a lobster after our bike ride, I’m very glad we did it. It was a great way to get active and see some history. Plus, the trail follows the San Antonio river walk so the scenery was beautiful.

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5 Things to Know about Visiting the Grand Canyon in the Winter

The Grand Canyon is a breathtaking natural wonder any time of year, but visiting in the winter months can be very different from the peak summer season. When we visited last winter here are the five things we wish we would have known before visiting the Grand Canyon in December:

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  1. The North Rim is closed

The Grand Canyon’s North Rim has view and trails to trek similar to the South Rim however it is more difficult to visit as it is far from the freeway and doesn’t have close airport options. Generally the North Rim is less crowded but it is not open to visitors in the winter months. If you are planning to visit, the North Rim is open from May 15th to October 15th each year.

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  1. Its gets cold!

The Grand Canyon is at an elevation of 7,000 ft above sea level so although it is a desert it is still pretty cold in the winter time during the day. For us it got up to around 50 degrees Fahrenheit during the height of the day but if you are hoping to see the sunrise bundle up! When we watched the sunrise it was around 10-15 degrees Fahrenheit. We also saw some ice on the trails so be careful when hiking and be sure to wear plenty of light layers!

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  1. Daylight hours are short

While it makes it easier to view the sunrise (~7:30am) and the sunset (~5:15pm), there are a lot less hours in the day to enjoy the canyon. The main way this affected us was when we hiked part of the Bright Angel Trail down into the Grand Canyon. We were wary about leaving plenty of time to make it back up the canyon so we wouldn’t be on the trail in the dark.

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  1. Not all the buses are running

We never ended up using the shuttles since it was more convenient to have a car in the winter. Only two of the shuttle bus routes are running and this did not include the one that could bring us to the park from our hotel or the route along Hermit Road stopping at many beautiful overlooks including Hermit’s Rest. If you are there in the winter it will be helpful to have a car to drive to the different areas you want rather than relying on the shuttle bus services.

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  1. During holiday weeks it is extremely crowded but other times it is not crowded at all

If you are traveling to the Grand Canyon in the winter be sure to avoid Thanksgiving week and the week between Christmas and New Years if at all possible. During the holiday weeks the Grand Canyon National park is jam packed. However, when we were there in mid December there were many times we had places to ourselves.

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Visiting during the winter months definitely has it’s advantages, the main one being very few fellow tourists, but we weren’t quite sure what to expect. Hopefully these tips will help you plan you winter vacation!

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​Welcoming New Volunteers to Liberia!

I kicked off June with a week of welcoming a new group of volunteers to Liberia: Peace Corps brought LR-8, the newest cohort of education volunteers! I got the opportunity to to help out with the first week of their pre-service training (PST) in Kakata.

The staff and resource volunteers (current Peace Corps Volunteers helping out with PST) came the night before to set up Doe Palace and were excited and ready the next day to welcome them at the airport. Until we got the news that morning that they hadn’t actually left Washington DC yet! Their flight was cancelled and they were rescheduled to come in two days later. So we had plenty of time to finish prepping and extra time to beautify Doe Palace–made a ton of signs and finished the awesome wall of masks from each of the 16 tribes in Liberia!

 

And then two days later they finally arrived! After days of travelling, the group of 45 new trainees arrived at the airport and we were there to meet them that evening cheering and waving our glittery signs.

 

Then we headed to Doe Palace for a marathon couple of days of training. After the traditional kola nut welcoming ceremony, we began their crash course in living in Liberia! We taught them about all of the small small things that are now normal to me after being here for a year: how to take a bucket bath, how to bucket flush the toilet, how to wash clothes on a wash board, how Liberia’s dual currency works. We also had sessions about different foods you can find here and how to treat your water before you drink it. We talked about integration into Liberian culture and as resource volunteers, we shared our own experiences.

 

It was a very busy couple of days but it was fun to meet and get to know the LR8s! After those busy few days, the trainees were off to visit some current volunteers at their sites to get a taste of what life as a volunteer will be like. While I didn’t host any of the LR8s, I had a different site visit of my own: my mom and sister Kathryn came to visit! I left from PST straight to the airport to meet them, more coming soon about their trip to visit me in Liberia…

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Spending Half a Day in Sedona, AZ

On our week long Arizona road trip, we spent our last day in Sedona. That morning we drove three hours from Page, Arizona, leaving us with only half the day left to explore. While this is in no way enough time to experience all that Sedona has to offer, here is what we were able to fit into our short time:

Our first activity in Sedona was hiking the Cathedral Rock Trail. Overall the trail is only 1.4 miles round trip, but in that short time the elevation rises 608 ft. It was definitely more challenging than expected with parts of it being more similar to rock climbing than hiking.  Overall the climb was moderately difficult as a novice hiker who is also afraid of heights but the views from the top made it all worth it!

Next we made a quick stop at the Chapel of the Holy Cross. High on the red rock hill, the simple design of the small Chapel of the Holy Cross looks out over the town of Sedona. The chapel is run by the Roman Catholic Diocese of Phoenix and was built in 1956. The interior of the chapel is unadorned and filled with ruby red candles for devotion. The unique chapel was voted by the citizens of Arizona as one of the Seven Man-Made Wonders of Arizona in 2007.

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To round out our day we decided to unwind in the nearby town of Cottonwood at a winery located on the Verde Valley Wine Trail. While there were a few different ones to chose from on Main Street, we decided to do a tasting at Arizona Stronghold Vineyards. The menu was broken down into 4 flight options: white wine, two red wine flights and a mixture of colors. At $9 each we chose the mixture of red and white plus an all red flight. Jay served us our flights and gave us lots of information about each wine and where the grapes inside came from. All of the wine we tried was delicious and we got to keep our tasting glasses!

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Overall, we wish we had planned more time in our trip to explore Sedona and the surrounding areas but we were very happy with everything we did get to see in the area. Hopefully some time soon we’ll make it back to Sedona to see more of what the city has to offer!

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The Season for Plums… and Workshops!

In the last couple of months, in between teaching, celebrating my birthday and enjoying plum (mango) season, I’ve also had the chance to attend a few different trainings that I wanted to share!

 

 

Workshop #1: Literacy and Phonics Training

At the end of March, I had the chance to attend a workshop put on by Peace Corps Liberia’s literacy committee! Literacy is a challenge here – in 2015, only 48% of people age 15 or older could read and write in Liberia, lagging far behind the 86% of the world’s population and even its own continent, 64% in sub-Saharan Africa.  Along with some fellow PC volunteers and Liberian teachers, we spent 5 days learning about literacy and how to teach Phonics. We were trained to use a phonics toolkit developed by volunteers here specifically for Liberia, to teach children to read by recognizing sounds and letters, rather than memorizing words (which is unfortunately how many children learn to read here!).

 

 

At the end of the training, we also had a chance to practice teaching phonics lessons at a local school! I co-taught with a Liberian counterpart, Hawa. In addition to the phonics lessons, we also talked about how to incorporate literacy and critical thinking into math and science lessons – I’ve already tried some of these strategies in my lessons at back at my school!

Workshop #2: Student-Friendly Schools

In early May, I went to a workshop put on by Peace Corps about how we can make schools more “student-friendly”.  At a school, there are many more stakeholders than just the Peace Corps volunteers, so each of us got to bring along others from our schools: I brought my vice principal, my PTA chairman, and a male and female student. We spent two days discussing topics like gender stereotypes, gender equity, corporal punishment vs positive discipline and how to create a positive learning environment.

 

 

At the end of the workshop, each school had to come up with an action plan for how we would bring back what we learned from the workshop and implement it in our schools. I could tell that all the counterparts I’d brought from my school had really gotten something out of the workshop but was unsure if our action plan would really be carried out once we returned. I was happily surprised that just a week later, without even having to remind him or urge him myself, my vice principal had already started! The topic he’d felt strongly about was the idea of positive discipline instead of corporal punishment, so he had briefed the principal about what he’d learned. He then made copies of a booklet of positive discipline strategies that we’d received from the workshop and began distributing them and having one-on-one conversations with the other teachers!

Workshop #3: Science Lab Workshop

And the last workshop, a Science Lab Workshop, was just last week! Many schools here do not have science labs – including mine! – making it challenging to do experiments and creating a big challenge for students taking the WASSCE graduation exam, which has a practical component for the sciences. I do not have a strong background in science but lucky for us, there’s a Peace Corps volunteer here in Liberia, Kristen, who I was able to invite! Kristen has found ways to improvise chemistry, biology and physics experiments using materials that can be found locally and spent two afternoons teaching us about them.

 

 

During the two days, Kristen showed 7 teachers, 11 students and myself how we can improvise using materials found here in my town – plastic water bottles that can be cut to make beakers, coal pot instead of a Bunsen burner, and straws or syringes in place of droppers.  She showed us how to create an acid-base indicator from red flowers, as we had no litmus paper. We learned about heat capacity using balloons (one with water inside and one with only air) and candles. Groups made their own electromagnets and tested local foods for starch (using iodine from the local medicine store or pharmacy). Other experiments included testing for CO2 in limewater, creating and testing for oxygen and a demonstration of using atmospheric pressure to crush an empty pop can!

 

 

 

 

 

 

The workshop was definitely a hit! My principal and other teachers asked Kristen when she would be coming back to share more experiments with them.  While we don’t have plans for another workshop, Kristen did leave a few copies of the workbook she developed with dozens of experiments for the teachers at my school to use. Though this school year is almost over (and the graduation test has already passed), I hope that next year the science teachers will be able to do more hands-on experiments in class!

 

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5 Things to Do in Page, Arizona

This past winter during our Arizona road trip we were fortunate to be able to visit Page, Arizona for two days. During our time there we experienced some amazing natural and man made wonders. Here are our favorite activities from our time there:

1: Visit the Lower Antelope Canyon

The Lower Antelope Canyon lies on Navajo Tribal lands and you can only visit them with a tour guide. We explored them with Dixie Ellis Tours. Since we visited in the winter we had the place practically to ourselves! Our guide, Kendrick, helped us with our cameras to make sure we got the best pictures we could. Read all about our visit here.

 

2: Visit the Upper Antelope Canyon

Similar to the Lower Antelope Canyon, the Upper Antelope Canyon is also on Navajo lands and requires a tour guide, we visited with Antelope Canyon Tours. With our guide, Cindy, we piled into a covered truck bed for our 6 mile ride to the canyon entrance. The Upper Antelope canyon was wider and deeper than the lower canyon, but also more crowded. Read more here!

 

3: Visit Horseshoe Bend

Just minutes down the road from Page on Route 89, you’ll find a small parking lot for Horseshoe Bend. After a short half mile hike, you’ll find yourself on the edge of a cliff looking 1000 ft down with a beautiful view of the Colorado River as it winds through the canyon below. For more information check out our post here.

 

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4: See the Glen Canyon Dam

Just off of Scenic View Drive, there is a car park for a view of the giant Glen Canyon Dam. Walk down a rocky path to see the second tallest concrete dam in the United States standing at 710 feet tall.

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5: Hike the Hanging Garden Trail

Right next to the Glen Canyon Dam is a small dirt road that leads to a parking lot for the Hanging Garden Trail. The trail is a mile round trip through red rock scenery. At the end of the trail is a small hanging garden with hundreds of vines extending down the rock ledge.

 

 

While this is in no way a complete list of things to do in Page, Arizona, these were some of our favorites. What was your favorite thing to do in Page?

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Viewing the Sunrise at the Grand Canyon National Park

When we visited the Grand Canyon this past December we were very happy that the Grand Canyon National Park is open 24 hours a day so we could watch the sunrise. For two mornings in a row we dragged ourselves out of our comfy warm bed, to spend time in the freezing morning air to watch the sunrise at the Grand Canyon. It was so worth it. The canyon itself is jaw dropping but watching it light up with the sun was stunning.

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View from Lipon Point

The first morning we woke up late (surprise, surprise) and hustled out the door leaving our map of the National Park behind. Our plan flew out the window! We drove fairly aimlessly through the park trying to find the sunrise viewpoint recommended by our hotel, Yavapai Point. Fun fact Yavapai Point is not right next to Yavapai Lodge. Eventually we found a public parking area with a trail sign leading to the Rim Trail. We scurried along the path reaching the canyon’s rim just in time to see the sun rise on the horizon! Though we didn’t make it exactly where we meant to, the view from the Rim Trail was perfect for us.

 

The second morning we aimed higher, we wanted to reach one of the further out viewpoints to watch the sunrise, Lipon Point. Waking up late (again), we raced to get to the National Park before the sun rose. We had much better luck this morning. We ended up stopping before our destination at Grand Trail View Point worried we wouldn’t make it all the way to Lipon point. We walked around and watched the first hints of the sunrise before heading the rest of the way to Lipon Point.

Arriving at Lipon Point, it quickly became my favorite spot to view the Grand Canyon. There is a fantastic panoramic view with the Colorado River winding through the Canyon. We could also spot the Desert View Watchtower in the distance! With the entire place to ourselves we watched until the sun rose high into the sky.

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If you are planning to see the sunrise here are a few things to note:

  1. Get there early! You can find the sunrise time easily online but that’s the time the sun actually peeks over the horizon. To see the full transition arrive to your viewing spot about 30 minutes early.
  2. It is cold! With the Grand Canyon’s high altitude, it is very cold before the sun rises. For us visiting in December the temperatures were below freezing, around 10-15 degrees Fahrenheit

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I hope these tips help you see the sunrise, it is a Grand Canyon experience I’m glad I didn’t miss!

 

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Visiting Horseshoe Bend in Page, Arizona

When planning our Arizona road trip, there was one photo that kept popping up during our research that we couldn’t resist, the beautiful Horseshoe Bend! Horseshoe Bend is a piece of the Grand Canyon near Page, Arizona where the Colorado river “bends” in a U shape. Since we had already planned to visit Page to hike the Lower and Upper Antelope Canyons, we were excited to learn that Horseshoe Bend was only 5 minutes away!

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Horseshoe Bend is actually relatively easy to find. It lies just off of route 89 between mile marker 544 and 545. Take the exit lane onto a small dirt path and you’ll find a dirt parking area complete with public restrooms. We went in mid December around sunset and the lot was fairly full, so parking may be difficult in the peak summer months. The best part about visiting Horseshoe Bend is there was no entrance fee!

After you park there is still a 0.5 mile hike on slick sand to reach the cliffs edge of Horseshoe Bend. The trek does have a good amount of uphill portions and is slow going due to the sand. If you get tired, there is a pavilion to stop and rest in about halfway to the cliffs. After the short hike, you’ll finally be able to see the bend in the Colorado river from the cliffs 1,000 feet above it.

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Wandering the cliffs above you’ll see that Horseshoe Bend is breathtaking. There are no guard rails obstructing the views so be very careful around the edges. Many other tourists were taking great risks climbing out on rocks to take the perfect photo and they almost gave me a heart attack!

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Visiting Horseshoe Bend was simple and free. If you are in the area Horseshoe Bend is a must see natural phenomenon!

 

 

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Visiting the Upper Antelope Canyon in Page, Arizona

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During our stop in Page, Arizona on our Arizona road trip we knew we had to visit Antelope Canyon. There are two separate canyons, the Upper Antelope Canyon and the Lower Antelope Canyon. On the afternoon of our arrival we visited the Lower Antelope Canyon (read about it here) after a night’s rest it was time to see the Upper Antelope Canyon.

Today, the Canyons are both located on Navajo property so they can only be visited with a tour guide. There are five different tour groups with which you can visit the Upper Canyon, we visited through Antelope Canyon Tours for $45 each. Our group of about 12 piled into a covered truck bed, packed in tight, and rode the six miles from our meeting point to the canyon. Three of those miles are not on paved roads and were very bumpy and dusty, or as our tour guide Cindy called it, a Navajo massage.

When we reached the entrance, our group stood outside as Cindy explained some of the history of the canyon. This unique canyon was created by 180 million years of wind and water coming through the canyon. Even today during the summer months there are chances of flash flooding due to heavy rainfall. Throughout the canyon you’ll see logs suspended in the canyon above your head which were carried in by high waters.

 

We visited in mid December, during low tourist season, and the Upper Antelope Canyon was still fairly crowded. We were told its much worse in the summer months. Cindy showed us the places throughout the canyon to get the best photos and the names of different rock formations. My personal favorites were a point where the light coming through the ceiling was shaped like a heart and a spot where you could stand to have angel wings!

We walked leisurely through the 0.25 mile long canyon stopping along the way to take photos before coming out on the other side. Before I mentioned that you can only visit this canyon through a tour, this is mainly to prevent vandalism. On the sides of the canyon walls at this exit you can see bullet holes! With most all of our photos take we walked the entire way back to the truck just enjoying the views. Another dusty, bumpy ride in the back of the truck and we concluded the tour right where we started.

Visiting the Upper Antelope Canyon in December was breathtaking but in April through September at mid day beams of sunlight stream through the canyon making incredible photos. Check them out on google here! This phenomenon only happens once a day so tours at this time a more expensive and fill up fast. If you want to see it make sure to book early! Even without the stunning sunbeams, our visit to the Upper Antelope Canyon was definitely worthwhile.

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Visiting the Lower Antelope Canyon in Page, Arizona

During our week long Arizona road trip, we spent two nights in Page, Arizona. When we arrived we immediately went to do a tour of the Lower Antelope Canyon. Located on Navajo tribal lands, access to the canyon is permitted only through two tour groups. We visited with Dixie Ellis Lower Antelope Canyon Tours and booked the tour for $25 plus an $8 Navajo entrance fee when we arrived. If you are coming in the summer months you should definitely book ahead, but as we were there in mid-December we didn’t have any issues.

 

 

We were very fortunate that there were only four of us in our group plus our tour guide, Kendrick. We descended five flights of stairs into the canyon about 80 ft underground. The sandstone caverns were incredible, we explored the canyon mostly at our leisure with Kendrick helping with camera settings for the best quality pictures. Luckily for us Kendrick also leads a photography tour so he understood how each person’s camera should be set and the opportunities for the best pictures. One of the photos might look familiar as the Microsoft screensaver called Sandstone Waves, which was taken here in the Lower Antelope Canyon!

 

We spent about an hour in the canyon, practically having it to ourselves. However, in the summer months our guide described a much different scenario. Apparently the canyons can get filled up from elbow to elbow with tourists and the wait to get into the canyon can take hours! Next year it sounds like both tour groups will be raising their prices to visit the Canyon in the hopes of offering quality tours rather than a large quantity of tours.

 

Overall we really enjoyed our experience in the Lower Antelope Canyon, but the situation would have been very different had we visited in the summer months. If you can, try to visit during the low season to enjoy this natural wonder!

 

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