I am so excited to share that my blog got a “shout-out” on Thriving Home! Thanks so much to Polly and Rachel’s generosity for sharing my blog with their readers.
Last October we backpacked through Spain with our eleven-month old baby. We spent ten days soaking up culture, history, and food in Madrid, and parts of Andalusia. Our choice to take only backpacks goes back to our why. We wanted to travel light. We wanted to keep our hands free. We wanted to hop on and off of buses and trains easily, to experience local life as much as possible by walking. We wanted to keep things simple, which to us means not surrounding ourselves with a lot of stuff to keep track of, transport, organize, and generally bother with. We wanted to travel slow, relax, and take our time at these places that were steeped in history. We spent a month before the trip memorizing enough Spanish words and phrases so that we could order off Spanish menus scrawled on the chalkboard walls of hole-in-the-wall tabernas (and avoid the tourist traps that had the pretty, laminated English menus). We wanted to be able to ask basic questions of the locals, and on some occasions even make small-talk in our broken Spanish with friendly folks on the subway who invariably approached to tell us how muy guapo Johann was.
We were here now. We had explored Madrid, made it to Seville, and were now ready to enjoy the rest of our trip.
On our first full day in Seville, we had two goals: See the Cathedral and Giralda, and buy train tickets for our day trips to Cordoba and Cádiz. [We had decided not to book everything ahead of time since we wanted to keep some flexibility in our plans so we had not booked these tickets prior to our trip. We now had to buy them in-person at the train station, since we had no computer.] Since we now knew how to get to and from the station, we decided to tackle the tickets first. We got an early a.m. start, walked the mile to the bus stop, rounded the corner, and were immediately confronted with a sea of pink T-shirts flowing past us. Thousands and thousands of women of all ages were running in what we assumed was a breast cancer race, past our bus stop as if it were an unreachable island in the middle of the sea. The road was closed to traffic in both directions, and we watched helplessly as the police at the end of the road redirected all the buses.
Hmm. What next?
We waited and watched for a little while hoping the race would move on and normal traffic would resume. But half an hour later, the pink sea was still flowing strong. They just kept coming and coming, as if they were multiplying right in front of our eyes. Tensions were running high. Seeing no end in sight (as it could have been a marathon), and unsure of how to move forward, we ducked into a nearby park. We held hands, slowed down, and just focused on keeping the peace between us. The park was a hidden gem, tucked outside the gardens of the Alcazar, with beautiful murals, a cool fountain, and all sorts of flora and fauna. It was just where we needed to be right then.
We walked around practicing gratitude and finding joy again. An hour passed, and when we left there was no more pink sea. Normal traffic had resumed. Our bus came along and we hopped on, overjoyed. Ten minutes later we were back at the station and forty minutes later we were leaving again, with tickets in hand, feeling relieved at having plans and grateful for having made the most of what had now been a shaky twenty-four hours. And, once again, Johann was sleeping hard in the Ergo carrier, blissfully unaware of the morning’s excitement. What a trooper.
A NOTE ON BABY’S SCHEDULE
Does anyone have a schedule on vacation? During the trip, we placed more importance on routine rather than schedule. Johann’s naps mostly happened on-the-go, in the Ergo carrier. Sometimes he took two, which was normal for him at eleven months, but sometimes just one longer nap. His nighttime sleep was very different than his at-home schedule, as we all generally went to bed later. But we watched how much total sleep he got within a twenty-four period to make sure he was getting enough rest. And, he did. We never had any sleepy crankiness from him while we were in Spain.
We spent the afternoon inside Seville’s Cathedral, marveling at its impossibly large scale and gothic architecture. It is the largest Gothic cathedral in the world, and the third largest cathedral overall. We felt very small the minute we stepped inside. We gazed up at its pillars and vaulted ceilings towering above us, stood in awe at Christopher Columbus’ tomb, admired the stained glass and intricately jeweled walls, and slowly took in the various rooms – each exquisitely designed and adorned for its specific purpose. Johann had snoozed while we waited in the entrance line but woke up just as we entered the cathedral, ready for an afternoon snack and a little exploring.
We ended our visit by climbing up the 34 levels of the Giralda to the bell deck, and were rewarded with 360 degree views of Seville and beyond.
We spent late afternoon recouping at the hotel, and let Johann play, then went out again for a light dinner of tapas. We couldn’t help but walk around the square once more enjoying the sunset with €1 cones of tasty gelado, completely guilt-free by the way since we had walked eight miles that day.
Early the next morning, we took the train to Cordoba and spent the day there. Our day in Cordoba was the most special one of our whole trip. Our main goal there was to see the Mezquita. This nearly one thousand year old Moorish-built structure has served as both mosque and cathedral over the centuries, depending on the conquerors of the day. The history was gripping and the place was breathtaking.
La Mezquita is the kind of structure where, when you stand inside, it’s easy to feel tiny and insignificant. It was a powerful reminder that our lives are really just dots on a line that stretches into eternity.
But there was so much more.
Cordoba pulled you back in time and allowed you to see Roman armies and ancient walls. We walked through castle gates and everywhere we looked reinforced that we only walk this Earth for a short time.
When we sat down for lunch at a taberna that had been a family-owned business since 1912 (wow!), we had no idea that we were about to eat the best meal of our whole trip. We ordered two regional specialties to try: Salmorejo, a thick, gazpacho-style cold soup made with tomatoes, bread, oil, and garlic, frequently served topped with hard-boiled eggs and chopped ham.
And, Rabo de Toro: Bull’s Tail stew usually served with potatoes.
Ryan and I will remember this meal for the rest of our lives, it was just that incredible. Johann sampled everything, and was especially thrilled to hold his own spoon and lap up the creamy Salmorejo.
That evening we arrived back in Seville, feeling like we’d had a day-long religious experience, and got a good night’s sleep.
A NOTE ON FOOD
You’re probably wondering how we managed to eat all this rich Spanish food, enjoy cervezas or sangria with every meal, and have gelado almost every day (oh, yes we did) without gaining any weight, and without breaking the bank. Pretty easily actually: By eating small portions of real food, walking a lot every day, and strict budgeting. Eating good food is a priority for us, and even though we never ate at any fancy places in Spain, we didn’t skimp either. Most of our “sit-down meals” were at bars or cafes. Some places tend to charge more for outdoor seating. So we scrutinized the prices, and weighed them against our mood and how badly we wanted to sit outside – which we actually did, a lot. It wasn’t a shock for us to see how much we spent on food because we had anticipated it, budgeted accordingly, and saved it all up ahead of time. Sometimes, we picked up food from grocery stores for quick lunches or snacks on the go. These were cheaper, and helped us stay within our budget. We ate well, savored every bite, and usually got up from a meal feeling happy and wanting “a bit more.” When you’re eating good, tasty, real food, you don’t need a whole lot to keep you full. We didn’t go hungry, but we were never stuffed either. Our average meal comprised of two Tapas plates, that we shared. (In case you’re wondering, a Tapas portion size is at most one-third or half the size of an “appetizer” plate that you would see at a restaurant in the US.) Since most of it was real food, we shared almost everything with Johann (churros and some other deep fried stuff were exceptions). Nursing and snacks usually happened on-the-go, or whenever we had the opportunity to take a break to play.
We also had a drink with most meals. Sometimes we skipped drinks and just had water so we could try a third Tapas dish, depending on how hungry we were or how tempting something looked. And, believe me, there are a lot of temptations in Spanish cuisine. It is generally easy to find food and water in Spain. Between all the markets and shops carrying a good variety of fresh produce and food for purchase, and abundant tabernas and cafes, we never lacked options. One additional benefit to me was that I was still breastfeeding (but don’t worry, the alcohol was all well-timed not to interfere!) and so burning extra calories there. Ryan and I were both walking nine miles on average, daily. And traded off carrying a twenty-pound infant strapped onto us. So, it is possible to eat great food on vacation without gaining weight or breaking the bank. In fact, Ryan and I had each lost a few pounds by the time we got back to the States.
Back in Seville, early the next morning, we hopped a train to Cádiz. It was two hours away one-way, but completely worthwhile. Cádiz, a seaport that stabs into the Atlantic Ocean, is “the most ancient city still standing in Western Europe.” We were thrilled to spend the day exploring it. Our visit on a holiday allowed us to keep a relaxed pace as the whole city seemed to ease through a perfect day. We all splashed in the warm waters of the Atlantic Ocean, and Johann had a huge smile on his face as he dipped his feet in it for the first time. We walked along coastal walls and visited fortresses that defended the city.
Cádiz was the perfect place to just wander.
The next day was our last full day in Seville. We stumbled upon a playground, and Johann was ecstatic to be there. We took about a billion photos of him playing on the swings. Seriously, a billion. We eventually pulled ourselves away and walked over to see the Plaza de Espana – a massive half-circle-shaped building, with a moat and courtyard, that was originally built for the 1929 World’s Fair but is used today as Government offices.
For lunch we ordered a racion (plate) of Black Paella for all to share. This is not Paella made with black rice, but rather squid ink. Johann loved it! This was only one of many strange new foods he had eaten on this trip, and we could not be more proud of our adventurous little foodie baby. We then moved on to see the last big highlight of the trip, the Real Alcazar. The Alcazar of Seville is the oldest royal palace still in use in Europe. It is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
We were amazed at the palace and grounds. Its gardens have been featured in movies like Lawrence of Arabia and Kingdom of Heaven, and while we were there we saw HBO filming scenes for Season 5 of Game of Thrones in the gardens! It was a good day.
The next morning, we all jumped in the hotel pool one last time! Johann promptly fell asleep right after (as he always does post-swimming) while we packed up and got ready to check out of the hotel. We caught our train back to Madrid, arrived to find ourselves walking around in the pouring rain to get dinner, then went straight to the nondescript airport hotel for a few hours rest before our (very) early morning flight back home.
We said a fond farewell to Spain. We had filled our souls with wonder, our bellies with amazing food, and our memories with joyful experiences. We had stayed within our budget, which was important to us. What helped us was our mindset. We knew this wasn’t a once in a lifetime “bucket-list” type of trip. We would continue to travel, and possibly return to Spain someday. So it was easy to say “no” to some of the cities and sights that were either further away or more expensive, and forgo some things that we would have liked to do. This helped us have fun and enjoy ourselves, and wisely spend the money we had set aside. We were grateful for our good health throughout our trip. We thought we were well prepared, and still learned a lot about backpacking through a foreign country with a baby. It was not without struggles, but we tackled the challenges that came our way, remained at peace with each other, and made a conscious effort to enjoy each moment. Now, more than ever, we were convinced of our motivation. Our why.
Our trip was about more than just going on a holiday to a new country, and putting a pin on the map. It was about sharing memories, experiences, and special times with the people we love, trying new things, and opening our eyes to the world around us. It was also validation that our lives haven’t stopped. In some ways, they are just beginning. We don’t want Johann to change us, but we want to influence Johann to appreciate the wonder that is in the world.
Our plan was simple: Go to Spain, see the sights, enjoy the food, and make new memories traveling as a family of three.
Our challenge: Stay on budget, bring only what we could fit in backpacks, and oh…bring our eleven-month-old son. No problem!
We had our tickets, a skeletal itinerary, and full backpacks. We would fly round-trip to Madrid and spend most of our time seeing the region of Andalusia. We were concerned about the long-haul flights with Johann, but got off to a great start when the airline staff let us carry our packs on board without needing to check anything in. Johann was our golden ticket!
Johann didn’t have his own seat, so he sat in our laps on all flights. Fortunately, he cooperated. I nursed him during take-off and landing, so his ears didn’t hurt. On one segment, the flight attendants set up the baby bassinet, but he refused to sleep in it. He screamed for the first few minutes, then discovered what great fun it was to climb out of it. So we gave up on that pretty quickly. But he slept like a champ in the Ergo for most of the journey, which let us sleep and watch a couple of movies too, and he was pretty happy while awake. Even being changed in the tiniest of airplane bathrooms didn’t bother him too much. When looking out of the window or flipping through the in-flight magazines got boring, we distracted him with the kids games on the seat monitors. He didn’t know he was supposed to line up all the colors and shapes, but he was mesmerized by the bright stuff on screen. We couldn’t have picked a more perfect occasion for his first “screen time.” And, I couldn’t have been more grateful for my travel partner, Ryan, who was champion baby-wrangler. My heart goes out to single parents on these long international flights going solo with their little ones.
It was a sunny afternoon when we landed in the capital city, Madrid, the next day. We stopped briefly at the Turismo (tourist information office) in the airport for a city map, then took the subway to our hostel. We quickly settled into our small but clean room and even though we were tired and wrestling the 9-hour time difference, we wasted no time in executing our plan.
Phase I: Keep everyone awake until bedtime, local time. We had read some tips on nipping jetlag in the bud for young kids, and this was at the top of the list. Johann surprised us yet again, by staying awake until 9pm. Children are surprisingly resilient, aren’t they? It makes me wonder how many of the things we don’t do are really because we project our own adult fears on the situations, versus our kids being unable to handle them. Ryan and I were mentally prepared for Johann to have some jet lag, but we were very happy that he was flexible, and adjusted right away.
Phase II: Start seeing Spain! As soon as we got settled into our hostel, we ventured out to explore the neighborhood and find dinner. We found a bar nearby and enjoyed our first taste of authentic Spanish Tapas and cervezas outside in the warm evening air. That night we tried out the Scrubba with all our travel clothes, and tucked Johann into the crib that the hostel had provided for him. [Side note: My friend Jamie had given me a tip to try. Since the crib was right next to the bed, we draped a blanket over the mesh side that faced us, which allowed the baby to sleep without seeing us and getting distracted, so we could have a light on and stay up later if we wanted to. This has worked well for us ever since.] Ryan and I spent a few minutes making the next day’s plans, map in hand, then promptly crashed.
The next morning, with no jet lag in sight and fully rested, we were ready to explore Madrid. We planned to be out through the afternoon, so we stocked the diaper bag with diapers and wipes, Johann’s spare outfit, sippy cup, a food pouch just in case we needed it, some cheerios, and our water bottle. We started our morning with deliciously strong café con leches (for the adults only!) and all split a breakfast sandwich.
Johann was wide awake and charmed the locals as they stared at his unusual mode of transport: The Ergo carrier! Baby-wearing seems rare in Spain, but there are strollers everywhere. We saw only one other baby-wearing family on our whole trip, and they may have been tourists. For us, there was no better option as we walked through crowded cobblestone streets and plazas, up and down stairs, seeing the sights of old Madrid.
We soaked up the history and culture of Puerta del Sol, the Plaza de Espana, Palacio Real de Madrid, Plaza de Oriente, and the Catedral de la Almudena.
When “siesta” time rolled around, we found ourselves at Plaza Mayor, and the city had gotten quiet. We did our part by sinking into a patio table with a pitcher of cold refreshing sangria and enjoyed the downtime ourselves. Only, Johann wasn’t tired. He’d taken a morning nap in the Ergo, so we let it go and simply enjoyed the sunny pleasant weather and all the happenings of Plaza Mayor while Johann cruised around our legs and played peekaboo under the table. That evening Johann was happy to stay up with us yet again, but crashed hard at 10pm when we got back for the night. It was a wonderful day.
Day two was all about parks and museums. But first, breakfast. For weeks, I had been waiting to have Chocolate con Churros, a typical Spanish breakfast. Neither Ryan nor I had tried churros before (not even the tex-mex variety), so when we tasted our first bite we could hear the angels sing. Johann tried his best to steal a bite, but his breakfast was a healthy food pouch.
We walked down some charming streets in old Madrid, seeing a few more plazas and churches before heading over to the Parque del Retiro. This 500+ year old park stretched for 350 acres in the heart of Madrid. We enjoyed the picnic lunch we had packed, and explored the park from head to toe. It was a great place to let Johann stop to smell the roses, so to speak.
We planned to see the Museo del Prado during the “free entry” time at 6 pm, to save ourselves the €28 that we would have paid otherwise. [Side note: Madrid has many such freebies that are worth looking into, if you’re interested in museums and saving money on sightseeing.] We waited for an hour in a line that snaked through the grounds to eventually get in and see priceless works of art by the likes of El Greco, Velazquez, Peter Paul Rubens, and Raphael, among others. Masterpieces I had only read about were now hanging inches from my face. No big deal! I couldn’t believe we were doing this for free. I was having a blast, even when Johann spent the last twenty minutes of our visit squirming and fussing. He was done riding around for the day and ready to burn off some energy himself. The museum was noisy, as apparently all of Madrid was there during the “free time,” so we didn’t feel too bad about it. Tourists are far louder, and oblivious anyway! We left feeling newly cultured, and found dinner at a taberna. It was the best meal we had in Madrid. Small plates of perfectly charred Padrón Peppers with just a hint of olive oil and sea salt, and the best Manchego I’ve ever tasted in my life.
Back at the hostel, it was now Johann-time. We wound down with games of peekaboo, reading (from our own books which were not meant for babies since we hadn’t brought any of his books, but he didn’t know any better – oops! – and at least we were still reading to him), and quiet bedtime songs.
The next day we had a noon train to catch to Seville. So we spent the morning walking around Madrid one last time and split a small plate of delicious Tortilla Española (a Spanish omelette made with eggs and potatoes, another traditional breakfast I had been waiting to try). We picked up some sandwiches and fruit for lunch on the train ride, then packed up and checked out of the hostel, and went to the train station. True to form, Johann had no problem with the two hour forty minute train journey to Seville. So far, he had loved the subways and got especially excited during our Metro rides all over Madrid. He either napped or happily looked out the window.
Once the capital of Spain, Seville is an old, beautiful, sun-drenched city with a lot of treasures. We would also explore other parts of Andalusia from here. We wanted to make the most of our five nights here, and had built in some downtime as well.
We arrived at the train station and made straight for the attached Turismo, only to find out that they were inexplicably closed. We had no city map or any knowledge of bus routes. So far, the trip had gone smoothly, so I went into a mild shock. Then, I got nervous. [Side note: You’re probably wondering “why don’t they just use the maps on their smartphones?” Answer: Because we don’t have smartphones, that’s why! Yep, we’re frugal and slightly in the dark ages, by choice, for the sake of keeping our lives simple. Besides, we actually enjoy being “unplugged” during vacations.] We could have called the hotel from a payphone and I’m sure they would have been able to direct us. But where’s the fun in that?
We knew we had to take a bus, as more expensive cab fare was not in the budget. We just had to figure it out and find our way to the hotel, so we formed a plan. We went out to the nearest bus stop and stared at the map on the wall. The hotel was near the Cathedral, so that’s where we needed to go. In fact, its location and walkability to everything we wanted to see in Seville was why we picked this hotel. And then, Ryan saved the hour. My dear husband has the best sense of direction of anyone I’ve ever met. I don’t know how, but in the next two minutes he had determined which bus we needed to take to get close to the Cathedral. I couldn’t complain or disagree, since the most I did was stare blankly at the map and think how the little circles representing bus routes looked like Froot Loops. Our bus arrived. We got on and collapsed into the only two available seats, feeling exhausted from the weight of everything…our packs, the baby, the uncertainty in an unfamiliar city. I was carrying Johann on my chest through all this and he was fast asleep in the 80 F late afternoon heat, completely oblivious to the fact that his parents were only mildly not-lost. The bus was crowded and as the stops whizzed by we basically stared out the window, looking for any signs that we were heading in the right direction, when we noticed that the people sitting in front of us were speaking English. With American accents no less. Undoubtedly by Divine Appointment, one of them was giving detailed information about the city to an older couple. She was speaking with authority and confidence. We were about to ask a local on the bus for help, but this was so much better! I seized the God-given opportunity, politely nosed my way in, and asked the nice lady if she would point us in the right direction. She confirmed that we were going the right way, and also that they were all getting off at the next stop and that we should too. Okay! (This gave Ryan a much-needed ego boost, his sense of direction was still spot on.) The nice lady turned out to be an American expat, teaching and managing a study abroad program at the local University, and she had been living in Seville for 30 years. We followed her and her brood of students and parents off the bus. The kind professor pointed down the street, and said we needed to walk that way.
It was just a short walk, she said.
We walked for half a mile, which seemed to me more like five as I was now bone-tired from carrying almost forty pounds between Johann and my pack. But we were clearly close to the Cathedral now, evident by the procession of tourists in front of us. Suddenly, surely by Divine Arrangement again, a Turismo appeared on our right. The helpful people inside handed us a beautiful city map, with an X where our hotel should be. Ahhh!
It was only another half-mile, they said.
At this point, I should lay forth a couple of facts. 1) The old city of Seville, especially the barrio Santa Cruz (the neighborhood we were in), is a maze of tiny streets, many of which were not marked and not on the map. It was easy to see why the buses could only get so close to this area. 2) The difference between a “street” and an “alley” was only distinguishable by intent. E.g. if we saw a cab nose its way down an alley, with nary an inch between the cab and the buildings on either side, that didn’t necessarily make it a street. So after half an hour of wandering in a quarter-mile radius from where we thought our hotel should be, we still hadn’t found it. We retraced our steps. Then, by some miracle, we finally saw our street and then our hotel! Forty-five minutes later we had checked in, gotten changed, and back out again feeling refreshed, relieved, enjoying the sense of accomplishment, and thoroughly famished. We were in the liveliest part of Seville, and had no trouble finding a bar. We sat down at an outdoor table with two giant cervezas, and let the evening breeze wash the stress of the day away from us.
We shared a plate of Chorizo Ibérico, which was smoky, slightly spicy and incredible, and took in the view of the Cathedral and Girlada towering right in front of us and the beautiful sunset behind it.
We had overcome our first major challenge of the trip. We had kept the peace between us. We had walked over ten miles in the past twelve hours. And we were now completely relaxed, reaping the rewards of a long arduous day. Traveling like this is not all rainbows and unicorns, and there is a lot more pressure with a baby in tow. But, it was worth every moment. We were in one of the most beautiful cities in the world. We were having an epic trip.
Last Fall we packed up our backpacks, and our eleven-month old son, and went to Spain for ten days. We’ve always said that we won’t let having babies stop us from doing the things we love and find meaningful. Travel is one of those things. So far, we had only taken Johann on domestic flights, the longest of which had been four hours. Now, we were looking at a ten-hour flight from Seattle to Frankfurt, a two hour layover, then another two-and-a-half hours from Frankfurt to Madrid. Rinsing and repeating just ten days later. So, the long-haul flights and the destination itself were going to be new experiences. While we felt prepared, we were sure unexpected situations would confront us. And, they did. For us, it was as much about doing it and learning from the experience as it was about the destination.
We had saved up for a big trip in 2014, and we wanted to see a new country, so we searched for options based on our budget and the ten days we had available. We were surprised and excited to see cheap flights to Madrid. Neither of us had been to Spain before. It fit our budget (as Spain is not yet as expensive as some other European countries), and it seemed liked we could have a great time in ten days there. We thought about it for all of two days, Ryan cleared it with work, and we booked our flights before we could change our minds or talk ourselves out of it. Amazing local food, culture, history and architecture awaited us, and we couldn’t wait to go!
We wanted to go slow and allow time to enjoy ourselves, rather than follow a busy go, go, go schedule. We figured ten days would let us set a relaxed pace and still have fun and see and do a lot. Johann was taking two naps a day, and while he napped well in the Ergo carrier, we wanted to be sure to give him space to play and burn off energy as well. Even though we knew this would be an epic trip, we didn’t feel pressure to “see it all” as we know our family will continue to travel. We planned to spend three days in Madrid, and the rest of the time in Seville before heading back to Madrid on our last night to catch our (very) early morning flight home. We could take high-speed trains from Seville for easy day trips to the other Andalusian towns we wanted to see, as we knew the region had a lot to offer.
We had a strict budget, so we were going for hostels with private rooms, or cheaper hotels, in Madrid and Seville that had easy access to public transport. We found a clean hostel in a safe neighborhood in Madrid that had ensuite bathrooms (a must!), hotel-like-amenities such as daily housekeeping, and access to the Metro half a block away. The museums and the big city park we wanted to see were just a short walk down the road. Everything else was an easy Metro ride away. We were thrilled with our find.
In Seville, we booked a room in a small beautiful hotel in the barrio Santa Cruz, right in the heart of old Seville. The main square with Seville’s Cathedral and the Real Alcazar were a block away, and everything else we wanted to see was within walking distance. We would only need to use the public buses to get to and from the train station. Score! Both accommodations confirmed that they would provide a complimentary crib in our room for Johann, which meant that we wouldn’t need to carry a travel crib with us (or risk all of us sleeping in the same bed very uncomfortably since we are not co-sleepers!).
Now we just had to pack. As aspiring minimalists, we both wanted to travel light and have our hands free. Everyone defines “traveling light” and “packing light” differently. For us this meant: Our backpacks, Johann in his Ergo carrier, a diaper bag and my purse (both messenger-style). This meant that we were carrying everything including our son like pack mules, but it was completely worth it to be able to move freely and quickly while navigating airports and busy streets, hopping on and off of crowded trains and buses. We didn’t need a carseat since Johann would be on our laps for the flights, and we would only be using public transit in Spain. A stroller was not even a consideration since Johann loved riding in the Ergo carrier, and both Ryan and I were healthy and able to trade off carrying him.
But, taking only backpacks presented a few concerns. How were we supposed to anticipate our baby’s needs for ten whole days and pack it all in two backpacks along with all our own stuff? Were we actually planning to go backpacking across Spain with our baby?! This fragile creature who was so tiny and completely dependent on us for everything. What were we thinking?! The planner in me wanted to be prepared for all contingencies. We then realized that if we lost, left behind, or ran out of something we could buy it locally. Duh. We started a list of the essentials, did a mock pack, then saw that we had room for some nice-to-haves as well.
Several people have asked me exactly what we packed for this trip, so here it is:
CLOTHES & SHOES:
- Three outfits each, plus two extras for Johann just for plane emergencies.
- Pajamas for all of us, but two for Johann.
- All our swimsuits, and Johann’s reusable swim diaper. (Our hotel in Seville had a pool. Not in our search criteria, but a nice bonus!)
- One extra pair of shoes for all. (Ryan and I made sure our shoes were comfy since we anticipated walking miles everyday.)
- Flip-flops for the adults.
- Three extra pairs of socks each, and three extra pairs of underwear for the adults.
- Sunglasses for the adults, and sun hats for Ryan and Johann.
- Three scarves for myself – these were “nice to haves” – mainly to give new life to my three outfits. It’s amazing what accessorizing can do!
DIAPERS & WIPES:
- Enough for four days, after which we would buy more there.
HEALTH & GROOMING ITEMS:
Small things that didn’t take up much room in our packs. Infant Tylenol, diaper rash cream, basic nail-clippers, disposable razors, travel-sized containers of hand-sanitizer, sunblock, moisturizer, toothpaste, toothbrushes, Q-tips, etc.
You’re probably wondering how we got away with only three spare outfits. With space at a premium, and our packs’ weight needing to be as low as possible, our plan was always to do laundry there. But laundromats in Spain are pricey, so that wasn’t an option for our budget. Nor did we want to waste precious vacation time lugging our laundry around, looking for places to do this unpleasant chore! So we chose the DIY option. While washing small things in sinks has worked fine for us in the past, we were now in the brand new world of food-and-spit-up-stains, and clothes would never get as clean in a sink. By some amazing coincidence (seriously!), the same week that we were packing, I saw a contraption called the “Scrubba Wash Bag” online. I saw the demo video, got hooked immediately, and called Ryan at work. We quickly discussed it, agreed that the $50 pricetag was worth the investment and time-and-hassle-savings, and I ordered it right away! The Scrubba weighs a mere five ounces, and folds up into a small triangle that fits in my hand. Ahhhh! This, and six single-use Tide liquid laundry packets went into our packs.
We “did laundry” in our room every other night, wrung it all out and hung to dry overnight. All the sweat-and-baby-spit-up-stained clothes came out clean! Oh, what a simple sweet blessing!
BABY FEEDING ITEMS:
- Sippy cup (one).
- Ten organic food pouches. We allotted one per day in case no other food was available, or if we ate something special that we didn’t want to share with Johann (like chocolate con churros). This was our first foray into “baby food” as Johann loved to self-feed and normally just ate what we ate at mealtimes (putting his six teeth to good use). He was still nursing four times a day so we had no need for bottles or anything else.
- Two spoons, which turned out to be completely useless. We used one once to give Johann some soup we had ordered. We could have just used a regular spoon for that.
- Four disposable bibs and placements – also useless. A friend gave us these and we used them only once on the whole trip. In about five seconds Johann ripped the placemat off the table, which obliterated the sticky back. He ate almost all his meals sitting in our laps and eating off our plates (high-chairs are very rare in Spain, FYI), and we were happy to hold him. We quickly discovered that it was best to just take his shirt off to avoid food spills as most of our meals were out on the street on patio tables. No one cared and it was warm enough to be shirtless. Besides, our baby just became that much cuter to the Spaniards who already love the babies!
- Snacks: We took a zip top baggy filled with cheerios. We used some on the plane rides but brought most of it back home, as Johann’s favorite snack in Spain turned out to be the free bread and breadsticks they brought out whenever we sat down for tapas and drinks!
- Umbrella. The forecast called for sunny, mild weather, with a chance of rain, so we packed it just in case. It was handy on our last day there, when it poured cats and dogs while we were out walking around on the streets getting dinner and making our way to the airport.
Once we added our small electronics, camera, travel documents, plane snacks, a book each, neck pillows, and an empty water bottle, our packs were mostly full.
We were ready to go to Spain!
We go hiking a lot. It was something we really enjoyed as a couple in our pre-baby days, and it is something we enjoy as a family of three today. It just looks a little different. And, not at all like we expected. So, I want to share some of the things we are learning about hiking with babies and toddlers.
I remember the very first time we took Johann hiking. He was two months old and, on one sunny, unseasonably warm Sunday in January, we decided to get outside as a family and do our first “real hike” since the pre-baby days. We chose a short hike that was close to home, so in case everything went south we could head back pretty quickly. The important thing to us that day was to just get out and do it. Baby steps. Momentum is key. And, it’s about progress, not perfection.
We had been carrying Johann around the house a lot in the Moby wrap (which was a lifesaver for us since he wanted to be held a lot in his first three months of life), so that is what we used to carry him on the hike. I think the Moby people would not endorse that behavior. But we didn’t have any other baby-wearing devices and, whenever possible, we are all about making do with what we have. We knew we would be more comfortable with a proper baby carrier as he got older so, about a month later, we got an Ergo carrier – which, to date, is hands down the best thing we have ever bought for Johann. It is worth its weight in gold for how valuable we still find it now over a year later! But the Moby was fine at that time, since he was only two months old and so tiny.
What we packed:
- diapers and wipes
- a bag to hold the foul ones
- burp cloth (one)
- change of clothes for Johann (one)
Johann was also nursing about seven or eight times a day back then, so in terms of timing that was something we had to consider since I could not nurse him while he was in the Moby. But nursing meant that we didn’t need to carry around bottles or anything for his feeding and we were extremely grateful for that. He never really took a pacifier, but we hadn’t completely given up on it yet so even though he didn’t want it, we carried one anyway on our first few hikes. Besides these, and the essentials for ourselves, we didn’t pack anything else. All our stuff fit neatly into one small daypack. A couple of months later, we even stopped bringing a burp cloth. Since Ryan and I each always carry a handkerchief around, we just used those in case of spit up, which, with Johann peaked at 4-5 months. Isn’t parenthood glamorous?
When he started sitting up on his own, once or twice we brought along a small toy to give him whenever we sat him down on the ground during breaks, but it proved to be completely unnecessary as he was just so much more interested in the natural environment around him. We haven’t brought any toys on hikes since then. After he crossed the six-month mark, we started putting sunblock and bugspray on him – and it was simpler for all of us to just use the same kind so we only needed to bring one of each. As he stopped nursing and started drinking water or milk, our packing list didn’t change much except for the addition of his sippy cup. Since he has started snacking, he just eats what we eat on hikes so we typically don’t bring any special foods that are just his.
We also found, starting with that very first hike, that it works well to clear out the trunk of our car to create a flat diaper changing space. We changed Johann’s diaper before we left the trailhead and, even though we were prepared, he was good until we got back to the car 1.5 hours later.
Well, we enjoyed the hike, but Johann did cry right at the beginning, for about ten minutes straight. He calmed down and fell asleep soon after, but his crying episode was enough to rattle us and make us briefly wonder why we had subjected ourselves to this. The crying didn’t last long, but the tension that Ryan and I were feeling was still there. So, as Johann fell asleep, we took a moment to remember our why. And while we hiked, we talked. We talked about all the things we want our kid to learn from us over the next eighteen years. We considered the kind of relationship we want to have with him. We considered the kinds of experiences we want to give him. We considered how to set examples for him of pushing ourselves to face new challenges, and then enjoying the reward at the end – just like a great view that awaits at the end of a trail.
I know that Ryan and I would love our why to mould and shape the foundation and the worldview that Johann will have someday. Sharing these kinds of experiences with the people we love, are cornerstones of ours. That first hike may not have been perfect, and we may not have had all the best gear. But, it got us going. It allowed us to do something we enjoy, with our baby, in a low-stress manner. And, it was important to us to start then, and to keep doing it, learning as we went. For instance, here’s one of the things I am so glad I learned: When we got our Ergo carrier, I figured out how to nurse Johann while carrying him in it. In so doing, I felt a huge sense of freedom! That opened up a whole new host of possibilities: I could now nurse him completely hands-free while hiking, walking, sitting, standing, hopping on and off of buses or trains, visiting with friends, at parties, etc. all while still being discreet, which was a boon for crowded areas. But all this didn’t happen right away. It took some getting used to on my part, coupled with practice and patience. It’s about progress, not perfection.
Now, Johann is an eighteen-month old active toddler. On our hikes these days, as long as it’s relatively safe, we let him walk a bit on his own power. We go at his pace, and stop a lot, basically whenever he wants to explore something, and we’re happy to do so. It is an amazing thing to experience a trail through Johann.
A friend of mine recently coined an expression that has become popular in our house, “Johann and his sticks!” It’s true, he is especially interested in sticks outdoors, and curious about so many other things around him, whether pinecones or a rushing river, or chipmunks and gray jays that scurry over to us in hopes of finding food (please don’t feed the wildlife!). He’s still learning how to navigate rooty and rocky terrain. He has no sense of self-preservation, so it takes work on our part to keep him away from cliff edges, poisonous mushrooms, snakes, etc. which is always in his best interest as well as our own. But we’re noticing that with a steady supply of rest stops, curiosity-breaks, snacks and water, he can go up to a mile and a quarter on his own. We’re meeting him halfway, and we’re starting to see tangible signs of a kid who is loving nature the way we do. That’s exciting.
I’m sure our hikes will change as Johann grows and becomes an active participant in the things we do overall, rather than someone who is just along for the ride with his parents. But we’re on that journey and we cannot wait to experience it together.
Momentum is key. Again, it’s about progress, not perfection.
Do you hike with your baby or bigger kids? What do you like or dislike about it?