Category Archives: Travel Budget Tips

Exploring Calusa Culture at The Mound House

Blue text with brown drop shadow reading: "Learning about Calusa Culture at the Mound House"; directly beneath text, there is a table sitting in front of a window. On the blue table top, which is labeled "Nature's Toolbox" along with some other illegible text, are several tools made out of seashells and wood.

While in Florida, I came across a sign when I was driving back from one of my many Walmart trips to my hotel on Estero Island:

Mound House
Archeological Site –>

I was intrigued. I don’t know that I have ever visited an archeological site before. Historical sites, yes. Reenactment villages, for sure. But an archeological site?

Something new and right up my alley.

When I got back to the hotel, I looked up some info and planned a visit.

Touring the Mound House


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The Mound House was built on top of a shell mound built by Calusa Native Americans over the course of 2,000 years. The house itself was built in the 20th century on the highest point on the island.

When they went to install a pool sometime around the 1950s, they realized how real shell mounds were. The residents found themselves digging into shells rather than earth, which had been arranged there specifically to provide high ground in the case of all-too-common regional flooding.

Today, you can go underground and see the excavation site, learning a bit about how Calusa society worked, how they recycled and how that recycling scrambles the dating of the shells when you’re going through them layer by layer.



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It was extremely interesting. We also got to try out replica weapons, including an atlatl–a mysteriously universal ancient hunting tool–along with some of the wildlife in the region including one bold heron who didn’t flinch as we walked by, less than a foot away.

After the official tour was over, we explored some of the exhibits upstairs. Here we learned about the history of the house, which was built by a local tycoon in order to inspire tourism to the island in my extremely watered-down version of history.



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The Shrouded History of the Calusa

But also the Calusa Indians, who lived in this region for millennia prior to Spanish invasions, have had their history extremely watered down, and in some cases completely eradicated. And not just in my retelling.

The tribe, whose name means ‘The Fierce Ones,’ were notorious warriors and did very well for themselves. When the Spanish came, they defended themselves heartily. But the introduction of new illnesses to the Calusa contributed in large part to their eventual extinction–at least as I understand it from the short tour I went on that one time when I was in Florida.

The little ones did get to try on replica masks, though. They got to learn about the weapons made of shells that these warriors used to assert their dominance.



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We also got to learn a bit about the religion, which ironically may have been preserved better than some other aspects of the culture with the introduction of literate Spanish missionaries. One aspect of the religion which I found particularly interesting was the idea that we have three different souls, and they all go different places (or stay) depending on their individual purpose.

We had so much fun and learned a ton. It was easily one of the best last-minute vacation experiences we’ve had as a family.

How much does The Mound House cost?

Visiting and getting the tour wasn’t the most frugal adventure ever (some of the things we did on this trip were free), but it also wasn’t crazy expensive and was worth every penny. Kids’ admission is $5 for children ages 6+, adults get in for $10 and students get in for $8 with an ID. Kids ages five and under do get in for free. Some of the tours won’t cost you more, but the most expensive one, which happens in kayaks, will run you $50/person.

Again, so worth it. Check hours and the tour schedule before you plan your trip, and you could set yourself up to see a replica carving demonstration, visit a touch tank full of the local marine life, kayak through the mangroves or learn more about archeology in a hands-on environment.

The place is magical.

Things I Wish I Had Done When I Was Younger

Such an emotional journey! It's easy to forget that today's excuses are tomorrow's regrets. I love the idea of weaving your dreams into your daily life.

My life has been anything but traditional. Most traditional life paths look like this–at least, if we millennials had gotten the opportunity to pursue the path our parents’ generation preached would lead to success:

  1. Go to college.
  2. Get married.
  3. Start a family.

I’ve been married a couple times now, finished school nontraditionally, and had kids before I got that degree.

None of those steps happened in order. But for the most part, I haven’t bemoaned the consequences. My journey has been unique, and it’s been one with plenty of opportunities for self-actualization.

That being said, lately there have been some opportunities I’ve become aware of that I totally wish I could pursue. If I didn’t want to keep the kids in this school district. If I didn’t have this business that I’m kind of in love with running.

And so I’m putting it out there on the internet that if you’re young and have relatively few responsibilities, go. Do these things. Or the things you dream of doing. Because right now is the time. As you get older, you will have more responsibilities. Sometimes these responsibilities are restrictive.

If you’re anything like me, you feel like your responsibilities are already enough at your age. And they are. I respect you for meeting them. But believe me when I say they will get heavier as you age. Sometimes that’s a beautiful thing. But sometimes it can prevent you from applying for a job in the jungle to work with orangutans.

Things I Wish I Had Done When I Was Younger

Get a job in the jungle to work with orangutans.

A pet interest of mine lately has become primatology. I never thought this would be a huge interest for me. Animals are cool, but I never felt particularly drawn to study them.

But go watch YouTube videos about bonobos, chimpanzees, gorillas and orangutans. It’s incredible to watch these creatures, our closest cousins, go about their lives. Experience their emotions. Use tools. Care for each other.

So much of what we consider human can be observed in these practices. This, plus access to a language both species can apparently gain fluency in, American Sign Language (ASL), has my brain spinning lately. Especially as so many of the great apes are going extinct because of habitat destruction and the bush meat trade, both of which are caused by humans.

So when I saw an open position at a research outpost my heart soared and the immediately turned sour. Would I love to go work in the jungle to study one of the gentlest of the great apes–the orangutan?

Yes. Yes, yes, yes, yes, yes.

But again, kids. Business. These are also things I love and want to be spending time at, and both demand attention.

Why did I not do ish like this when I was younger? I think back and can point to a million reasons why, many of them related to my lack of college education at the time. I wish I had known more about grants and scholarships back then.

Live abroad.

I have very few excuses for not doing this. When I was extremely young, I did live abroad. But I was so young I don’t remember too much about it.

When I was college-aged, I could have gotten a job at a hostel or done work online. Apparently, I could have also volunteered as an orangutan researcher in the jungles of Indonesia. In a low enough cost-of-living area, moving abroad would have been more than feasible. But none of these possibilities even crossed my mind.

Study abroad did, though. That’s one thing that stings about not doing college traditionally: I pretty much missed out on study abroad opportunities. I still dream about them now, but pursuing a semester abroad at my age has a lot more complications as far as visas, childcare, and those children’s educational needs go.

I’m not saying it will never happen. But living abroad probably isn’t in the cards in the near future here. Doesn’t mean I’ll stop dreaming, though. 😉

Invested money into index funds.

Okay, so I didn’t know what the hell index funds were when I was younger. I wouldn’t find out about those until J L Collins introduced them to me when I was slightly older but still young.

And I thought you only had enough money to invest if you were rich. And I was decidedly broke, though I did manage to get together decent emergency funds from time to time.

But had I gone to college traditionally I would have graduated at the peak of the Recession. Stocks were so cheeeeeaaaaaappppp. I would have so much more saved for retirement now, but back then I didn’t even know how to open an IRA and robo advisors didn’t exist. I could be wrong, but I feel like you generally needed more to get started back in the day (which really and truly wasn’t all that long ago.)

But I can still help the orangutans.

Just because I didn’t do some of these things when I was younger doesn’t mean I can’t transfer some of the enjoyment I would get from them into my life.

I may not be able to go back in time and invest from the age of 18, but I can regularly save for my retirement today. Future me will be grateful I started when I did rather than waiting until later. The best time to plant a tree was thirty years ago, but the second best time is now.

I may not be able to live abroad at the moment, but I can bring the joy of travel into my kids’ lives by exposing them to it early via vacations and long weekends, building it into the budget all the while.

And I may not be able to go research orangutans in the jungle, but I can still help the effort to save them by donating to the research center’s cause.

Life doesn’t necessarily get worse as you get older. Your joy just changes forms.



Frugal Fun at the Wildlife Refuge

Definitely putting this on my to-see list next time I take the family on a trip down to Sanibel Island!

When I’m traveling, I’m not opposed to doing tourist-y things. But if I’m going to do them, I prefer to do them as affordably as possible. Sometimes you can’t avoid admission fees and exorbitant costs to experience once-in-a-lifetime activities, but I’ve gotten pretty good at finding frugal activities no matter where I go.

The recent Florida trip was no different. We were able to take part in two non-beach-related activities while we were in Fort Myers Beach: JN Ding Darling National Wildlife Refuge and The Mound House.

Both were really cool, and I’m going to let you in on all the deets of The Mound House next week. But today I want to tell you all about our low-cost trip to the wildlife refuge.

JN Ding Darling National Wildlife Refuge

national wildlife refuge

JN Ding Darling National Wildlife Refuge is on Sanibel Island. We were staying on Estero Island, but the trip over to Sanibel was pretty darn short.

When we got there, we headed into the visitor’s center, which has a ton of fun educational displays and activities about the local flora and fauna. It also features the history of the refuge and JN Ding Darling himself.

Also, the visitor’s center is free!

While we were there, we learned about the refuge’s app. It looked pretty cool, and was going to be super interactive for the kids on our self-guided tour, but the sun was super bright and we had trouble seeing the screen while we were outside.

No complaints about the warm weather. I’ll take not being able to see my screen over the snow I was trying to escape any day.

The Trails

black bird sanibel island

From there we hiked the trails. It was really cool. The first portion reminded me of our hike down the Mayan-maintained walkways of the Yucatan rain forest. We were on a raised platform among low trees with wildlife potentially lurking all around us.

We mostly saw birds, but we also saw fish and spiders as we made our way through the mangroves.

The second path we trekked was made completely of seashells where you’d expect to see gravel. We made it to an observation center where I finally was able to conceptualize the Laetoli footprints.


heron mud florida

Visit the wildlife refuge is incredibly affordable. Like I said, the visitor’s center is free. And the three paths you can walk or bike are pretty darn affordable, too. The Bailey Tract is free, and the Indigo Trail is only $1/person.

You can also do wildlife drive, which can be visited via foot, bike or car. It’s closed every Friday–which is the day of the week we visited–but you can catch it every other day of the week for $5/vehicle, $1/pedestrian or $1/bicycle.

Whichever path you take, I highly recommend the refuge as a quality activity that you won’t even know you barely paid for.

Catch it on Insta

I’m currently documenting this Florida trip on Instagram, including some more pictures of the refuge, so be sure to follow along!

Bowman’s Beach vs Estero Island

Pinning for my next trip to Fort Myers!

The first place we visited in Florida was Fort Myers Beach. We were there for the Thanksgiving holiday itself. Our hotel had a full kitchenette, which was great. The night before we picked up turkey, rolls and sides from Honey Baked Ham. The meal was amazing, super low effort for a holiday meal, and cost us around $80 total, which is about what we would have spent on groceries to cook that meal ourselves, anyways.

We did a lot while we were in the Fort Myers area. None of it was too crazy expensive. But the cheapest activity was hitting up the actual beach. We did two this time around, and definitely had a favorite when all was said and done.

Bowman’s Beach

sanibel island beach florida

Bowman’s Beach is on Sanibel Island. To get to Sanibel Island, you have to cross this massive, elegant, white bridge which rises over the most beautiful blue waters you’ve ever seen (as long as there’s no Red Tide.)

To get across it, you need to pay $6. They only take cash, which is super convenient in 2019. If you’re like me and almost never carry cash, their security cameras will record your license plate number, using it to locate your address and send you a bill.

All the way at the tail end of the island is Bowman’s Beach. You’ll drive by quaint shops and nature reserves to get there. When you arrive, you’ll be greeted by a massive parking lot. Nab a spot, pay for parking at the machine located in the middle of the lot, and start down the trail towards the beach.

About a quarter of the way down, there are restrooms and changing rooms. They were pretty clean for a public access beach, but you’re still going to want to wear flip flops at the very least. There were also some outdoor changing cubicles, too, and outdoor showers to rinse off after you’re done.

The rest of the hike is over beautiful white sand. It’s not crazy long, but the walk is definitely going to range from cumbersome to inaccessible if you’re there with anyone who has mobility issues.

When we got to the beach it was crowded. That wasn’t entirely unexpected; it’s a popular beach known for its shells. There was a barrier of them about halfway up the beach, and then another band of them for about 5-10 yards after you stepped into the water, after which you got to silky sand under your feet.

Honestly, they ended up hurting my feet more than amazing me. We got there in the afternoon so I’m sure it would have been more of thrill if we had gotten there first thing in the morning before things were picked over.

Bugs make me grumpy.

But I was also unusually grumpy, though I still tried to wear a smile. This may have affected my shell love. You see, there were tons of no-see-ums. They’re tiny little bugs that leave big, itchy bites.

These little guys loved me, and to top it off, I had some type of allergic reaction to the bites. The inflammation turned the cold I was almost over into bronchitis, which led to an Urgent Care visit. They got me the meds I needed and it was a free visit since I had already met my annual max deductible on my health insurance (yay?). But I’m definitely going to have some scars from those bites.

Last year when we went to Sanibel it was for a wedding, and we visited the beach via the family’s private property. It was breathtakingly beautiful, but I did also get bit to hell and back on that trip, too. There wasn’t enough calamine lotion in the world.

So for the bugs alone, I don’t think I’ll prioritize Sanibel as a destination in the future. That doesn’t mean I don’t fawn over its impossibly blue waters and white sand shores. But it does mean that I’m perfectly satisfied with seeing those same waters and beaches over on Estero Island where I don’t think I was bit once.

Estero Island

fort myers beach florida

Estero Island is in Fort Myers Beach. It’s a long skinny island with only one bridge back to the mainland. We stayed right about in the middle of the island, across the street from the beach.

It was glorious.

All the impossibly blue waters and white sand shores. None of the bugs. Enough people that if you needed help someone would notice and be able to call 911, but not so many people that you could hear the people next to you converse.

Granted, we were there during the week of Thanksgiving. We were also staying far enough down the island that I would imagine the crowds started thinning out before they got to us, staying closer to the bars and restaurants near the bridge.

Wanna hear something funny? We even found this huge cache of shells. It was amazing. I only thought to take a picture once we had cleared most of them out, but we brought them home so I got an after shot:

flordia shell cache

Which is better–Bowman’s Beach or Estero Island?

For me, Estero Island was the clear winner. There’s probably tons of people who would disagree with me. But the cheaper-than-Sanibel hotels, comparative absence of no-see-ums while we were there and the lack of feet-cutting shell beds won it for me.

Also, because we were staying on Estero Island, it was a cheaper beach because we didn’t have to pay for parking.



Free Entrance to National Parks in 2019

This is incredibly useful and is going to save me some money! It tells you how to get into national parks for free--in the US and Canada.

Over four hundred of America’s national parks are free everyday.  But 118 of them aren’t.  Luckily, the park system does offer free days, so you can go enjoy our beautiful country while remaining completely and totally frugal.

National Park Free Entrance Days for 2019

In 2018, the National Park System dramatically cut back on the number of free days. This year things are marginally better, with five free days instead of four–though prior to the 2018 change there were weeks worth of these free admission dates. While things are moving back in the right direction, if you want to visit on a free entrance day, you’re going to have to plan a little more carefully.

Martin Luther King, Jr. Day

Fees will be waived on January 21, 2019 in honor of Martin Luther King, Jr. Day.

First Day of National Park Week

Before 2018, there were five free days in the month of April recognizing National Park Week. Ever since last year, though, you only get in for free on the first day of the celebration. This year, that date is April 20, 2019.

National Park Service Birthday

This is the fifth free day added by NPS this year. To celebrate the National Park Service’s 102nd birthday, you’ll be able to gain free admission to parks on August 25, 2019. There’s even word of some fun activities on this day, so keep your eyes open!

National Public Lands Day

Admission will be free on September 28, 2019 in honor of National Public Lands Day.

Veterans Day

You can get into national parks for free in celebration of Veterans Day on November 11, 2019.

Which National Parks require an entrance fee?

I’ve been lucky to travel a good bit in my time. National parks always bring such a sense of awe and wonder. It’s one thing to wander around in the woods in your backyard. It’s a completely different thing to spend time in pristine, protected wilderness.

Some of my favorite national parks that will be waiving their fees on free days are:

There’s a ton of others, too. I was surprised to find the ones in my own back yard that I never knew existed. To find some near you, you can check out the National Park Service’s website.

Free Entry to National Parks Year Round

If you fall into any of the following demographics, you can get a free national park pass. You only need one per vehicle to get into the park, so if anyone in your family falls into one of these categories, you could theoretically get the entire clan in for free.

  • You are a US citizen with a documented disability.
  • You are a 4th grader. Eligibility starts on your first day of fourth grade and ends on your first day of fifth grade.
  • You are a member of the military or a military dependent.

You can learn more about each of these programs here.

Free National Park Admission in Canada

In 2017, Canada was giving away free national park passes in honor of their nation’s 150th birthday. That program has ended, but there are still a couple ways to get in for free.

The first is via a Cultural Access Pass. These are reserved for those who have become Canadian citizens in the past year.

A new program was rolled out in2018 that allows anyone under 17 years of age into national parks for free. It continues in 2019. Find out more about the youth program here.


We’d love to hear about your national park experiences! Tell us about them in the comments section.