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Saturday, October 30, 2010

A Good Feeling

The Good Feeling Hostel, that’s got to suggest something, right? We met Hugo, the hostel’s owner, after waiting on the hotel verandah near the ‘Back in Ten Minutes’ sign. He had just picked up the same seven or so tourists he’d dropped off at the beach that morning and was about to turn around and chauffeur another bunch. We were hungry and asked if there was a shop nearby. ‘I can drive you to the supermarket, it’s no problem’, he said casually. This, we learned, is generally the daily routine of Hugo and co-owner/best mate Miguel. This, and surfing, cooking on mass risotto/seafood casserole/roast pork for interested guests and more surfing. For people who love the sun and surf, these guys are living the life.

Bec and I found it pretty easy to slip into relaxation mode at the Good Feeling. Our first day was spent lying on the beach in the sleepy nearby town of Sagres. The following day we took a bus to the more touristy Lagos and met Andreia’s friend and Lagos local Anna, who took us to a ‘secret beach’ on the edge of the city with an easily missed descending stairway entry. It was a tough three days, late morning sleep ins, seafood lunches, afternoon ice-creams and the ever-present sapphire of the Mediterranean to remind us of the holiday mode we found ourselves in. I’m thinking if the lawyer thing doesn’t work out when I get home, I might just give Hugo and Miguel a call. I could get used to this life.

The walk from the not-so-secret Lagos beach

Put Lisbon on your bucket list

It’s not London, Paris, New York or Rome and it doesn’t try to be. It’s Lisbon and it’s cool. It came to my attention a number of years ago when my parents managed to get themselves on a flight that had a long lay-over in Lisbon, enough time for them to quit the airport and have an explore. I can remember both came home surprised at how much they enjoyed the off-the-radar Portuguese capital which has since remained in my mind, even if mainly as the place Mum bought those crazy shoes she never wears. We were in an even better position to discover Lisbon’s fruits as we’d been invited to stay in the home of a Portuguese friend we’d met while working at the animal sanctuary in Ecuador. So while most travellers go in search of ‘local haunts’ and ‘local experiences’, we were equipped with Andreia, local and all round great girl. So for us and Iza, another sanctuary volunteer visiting from Poland, it was all systems go!

I realise I’ve used the word ‘cool’ to describe Lisbon which is not a word I’m usually a big fan of. This time for the sake of accuracy, however, I went so far as to look it up in a thesaurus and have concluded that ‘cool’ is definitely appropriate. Some of its synonymous? ‘Stylish’, ‘chic’, ‘sophisticated’, ‘trendy’, and ‘happening’. Of all those words I think I’d choose the last - ‘happening’ - as most fitting. Lisbon has a unique energy that many other cities don’t. You see it in the people, the street buskers, and in the nocturnal street gatherings. It’s everywhere and gives the city an appealing edge. Andreia certainly didn’t lack this energy and, teamed with her German-born Portuguese friend Anna, gave us the ultimate tour of Lisbon.

So what does an ultimate tour entail? There were a few obvious must-sees. A ride on the famous No. 28 rollercoaster of a tram that heaved and hoed it’s way around the cobblestone maze of the Alfama district. Once off the tram I soon discovered a newfound respect for GPS-less taxi drivers after trying to navigate our way through the rabbit warren Old Town. But with Andreia we weren’t lost. We found deserted viewpoints, watched on as grandmas draped washing from colourful window boxes and lunched in a typical café, all the while smiling as Andreia sipped on a ‘mini’ of beer (a Portuguese tradition that would be difficult to grasp for many schooner-trained Australians). Faced with a challenge, our navigational skills - or, let’s be honest, Andreia’s - prevailed and at dusk we took in city views from the majestic Castle of São Jorge that gazes over the city like a medieval watchdog.

And of course the tour wouldn’t have been complete without an assault on our taste buds. On our first night in the big city Andreia took us to, what she called a ‘local favourite’, a restaurant in a passageway just off the Praça do Rossio, opposite a peep show joint. Sounds nice huh? Well, despite its perhaps unsavory neighbour, it was! Andreia had me eating salted cod, a Portuguese favourite, and had us all drinking green wine, which was…interesting. The following evening it was time to put on our dancing shoes - or in our case, going-out thongs - and hitting the town. This time our taste buds were treated to an Asian spread at the Wagamama-like ‘Nood’, followed by some potent caipirinhas, which very quickly took us back to some of our South American days. We soon discovered that it’s on nights like these Lisbon’s light shines. It felt like the whole city had emerged to play, but the action wasn’t in the bars, I was in the streets outside. We started our evening in a crowded plaza with a bottle of white and the whisper of a saxophone in the background, all the while overlooking the 25 de Abril bridge.

Clockwise from top left: Lisbon through a window; Busker on Rua Augusta; In an Alfama laneway; Stolling atop São Jorge; Andreia leaning out of Tram 28; Caipirinhas in the Bairro Alto.

From here we walked to Lisbon’s bar quarter – the Bairro Alto. On the way Sam and I got to know Caterina, one of Andreia’s friends. Caterina was passionate…about windows. ‘You’ve seen windows, but have you seen windows?’, was her first question. Initially we found this introduction a tad peculiar, but after spending the next half hour picking apart the windows of Lisbon, I understood. Those colourful sills, wooden and wrought iron, draped with clotheslines and creepers, are all just a part of Lisbon’s charm, each a reflection of charismatic people living inside.

So we proceeded with the extra large caipirinhas which seemed like a good idea at the time, but when we woke at 2pm the following morning with splitting headaches we were in deep regret. Luckily for us it was Andreia to the rescue, piling us in her car and taking us to Belem for the best Portuguese tarts in Lisbon. Usually I’m a bit skeptical when people describe places in this way. So many times I’ve expected great things based on descriptions such as these and have been disappointed. But the Pastéis de Belém was an exception and even though the ovens must churn out thousands of Pastéis de Natas (custard tarts) a day to satisfy the demand, each tart is simply perfection. From the delicate crisp of the pastry to the smooth warmth of the cinnamon dusted custard, by first bite our hangovers had vanished! This place was established in 1837 so I guess they know what they’re doing. The icing on the cake for the day? A free concert at the Centro Cultural de Belém down the road where we were treated to the husky sound of the talented Concha Buika. Just another Saturday night in Lisbon.

After all this we thought it was time to give Andreia a break from tour guide duties so we took ourselves to the train station for the hour long trip to the medieval city of Sintra, famous for its castles. Being a weekend and having left late in the morning we had to pick and choose how we’d spend the afternoon as the place was a swarm with tourists and lengthy lines. We chose the picturesque Pena Castle - a candy cane of colours, and the Quinta da Regaleira Gardens with its mysterious network of secret underground tunnels, enjoying sweeping views of Sintra and its green surrounds from both. To finish up we took a local bus another half hour out of Sintra to the beautiful Cabo de Roca, apparently Europe’s most western point. Here we got a spectacular sunset and, although the icy ocean wind soon had us huddled in the bus shelter praying for the arrival of the next bus, it was well worth the trip out.

Clockwise from top left: The Pena Castle facade; The Pena Castle; Opening to a tunnel in the Quinta da Regaleira; Cabo de Roca at sunset and its lighthouse.

On the day we left I told Andreia that I hoped she would come and visit us in Sydney because we’d love to return the favour, ‘but it’s not as beautiful as Lisbon’, I said. I was thinking in terms of Lisbon’s ancient plazas, cobble stoned streets and those amazing castles, not to mention the locals. Andreia disagreed, saying that the modernity of Sydney was surely as beautiful. Thinking about it afterwards I now have to agree. Sydney has some amazing things on offer from its sparkling harbour to its iconic Opera House. But does it reach Lisbon’s ‘cool’ heights?

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

And I thought I didn't drink Port

The Europe sector of our trip had arrived and we both had mixed feelings. South and Central America had exceeded expectation, not to mention being budget-friendly and spontaneous. Europe on the other hand was set to be pocket pinching and scheduled. Our once expansive European countries list had dwindled to Portugal, Spain, Italy and Germany, and we only had six weeks in which to see it all (another thing we’re not fond of, rushing). Before our jet setting expedition, however, we had a week in London. A week in a city I’ve been to on numerous occasions may seem like a long time, but with at least a third of my Charles Sturt University cohort living there and with friends from my USA exchange in Scotland, a week in London and night in Edinburgh wasn’t nearly enough. Then there were the bureaucratic difficulties we faced obtaining Bec’s visa for India. Australians note: if you apply for an tourist visa for India in London using an Australian passport, it takes 15 days! Thank you, Mum, for being British. Coupling this with a week of endless social activities, by the time we reached the Portuguese city of Porto we were both exhausted and in serious need of some down time.

Despite being weary, we took advantage of being out of the hustle and bustle of a big city and in a smaller, colonial one. Also nice was that we were joined by Sam, a close friend of mine from high school, and her travelling companion Michelle. Both were travelling in Portugal while we were and we’d hoped for our itineraries to overlap at some points along the way. So although the afternoon we arrived was spent dragging our feet around the beautiful Old Town, we enjoyed the sunset views of the port and river from high above on the bridge and stopped for dinner at ‘Tapas e +’, a tapas restaurant with an edge (and some very target sharp seagulls, poor Sam!).

A riverbank of Port Houses

And what of the subject of this post? Well, it may have been obvious to some, but I didn’t realise before I arrived that Porto is all about port – the alcoholic variety, not the shipping. Now, my experience with port is limited. When I think port I either think of sipping it during communion at church at Christmas or Easter time, or I think of the day following an unfortunate evening at college when I thought port shots were a good idea. So with my very minimal port drinking background, a port ‘tasting’ wasn’t something that had been necessarily on my to-do-list, but apparently they are the thing to do in Porto. One other thing I came away with, apart from my new appreciation of port, is that a ‘tasting’ in Porto is not what you might get at home (i.e. in Australia, a measly mouthful, two at most). In Porto, it’s a full glass! So when the four of us approached one Port House and asked for four ‘tastings’ we were somewhat confused when the server suggested we have two. We’re Australians, we thought, we can handle a full ‘tasting’ for goodness sake! We were finally convinced to share one between two and after delighting in the red, the white, the sweet, the dry, the chocolate and the Christmas pudding flavours, we were pleased by our decision as we left the port house, a definite sway in all our steps. If anything, a Porto port tasting will guarantee you a good night’s sleep, which was precisely what we needed.

 Our 'tasting'

Falling in Love

No, not in that way. I haven’t met the man of my dreams and set off into the sunset...yet. The truth is I’ve fallen for New York City once again. Manhattan, a planet of its own, the ‘concrete jungle’ dotted with yellow taxis, a family-friendly green slab at one end, the epicenter of world trade a hum with business tycoons at the other.

NYC and I have been going steady for well over a decade now. I first fell in 1997 when I was 12. My parents took my brother and me around the world, NYC our last stop. New Yorkers with their wacky style, enormous personalities and that accent immediately captivated me. An impressionable kid, I quickly adopted the bagel and ‘coa-fee’ routine and made Starbucks my Mecca, vowing and declaring after four days that I was moving to the city where rush hour never ends, I too wanted to be a New Yorker. Of course I was promptly set straight by my parents who reminded me of a little commitment called school, and I had a fair way to go at that stage.

My second visit would be nearly a decade later in 2005 while I was studying at the University of North Carolina. New York had changed. The world had changed. There was a war in Afghanistan, a universal fear in the air and while that NYC spirit remained, it had been dampened. On September 11, 2001, we had all watched as four high jacked planes changed the face of humanity forever. We had all watched as New York lost thousands of its beloved citizens and a piece of its iconic skyline. Together we watched the aftermath, grieved for the lost, honoured the brave and admired the unity and resilience of a city that would never be the same. This was something I would understand personally a few months after my 2005 visit while I was in London when its transport system suffered a similar attack. Both populations chose life over fear.

Five years later I once again found myself in New York City, wondering what a four-day visit would bring me this time. To my relief – even in my grumpy mood after a 3.30am wake-up, a missed connection in Dallas Fort Worth and two lost-in-transit backpacks - it was still the NYC I remembered as a pre-teen, a bizarre combination of flamboyance and panache and, like 2005, the scars of 2001 remained an open and raw reminder and commemoration. As a 12-year-old I’d stayed in a hotel with my parents, at 20 it was a backpackers’ hostel in Chelsea and this time it would a combination of both experiences. I was a backpacker in NYC but staying in the boutique Hotel Mela in Times Square, courtesy of Bec’s parents who’d put her up in a hotel as a 25th birthday present. I was just the very fortunate travel companion included in the package, thank you Curreys!

Although short and sweet, our visit was a well-planned assault on the senses. The aim? Take in as much of the city as possible in a mixture of touristy and local activities. Of course this was after some important administrative matters were attended to: a new computer battery from the remarkable Apple Store, spanking new underwear from Victoria’s Secret, and a trip to a Greenwich Village hairdresser to fix our dire split end situation.

Errands complete, we were left to our own devices with me enjoying the role of tour guide to first-time visitor Bec. I wrote above about our plan to mix touristy with local, but to be honest the tourist activities far outweighed the local. This, however, doesn’t really matter in a city like NYC where everything’s exciting. We made it to Broadway to see ‘Wicked’ (which was surprisingly thoroughly enjoyable even after a big night out in the East Village), ate over spectacular views at the revolving Marriot Hotel restaurant in Times Square and hopped on the Staten Island ferry to get a glimpse of the Statue of Liberty. We also took a brave step outside the tourist box by giving the Empire State Building the flick in favour of the less visited Rockefeller Centre - aka ‘Top of the Rock’ - viewpoint. Although still packed with thourists it was by no means less impressive and I rather liked the inclusion of the Empire State on the skyline.

Clockwise from top: view of Central Park and the Empire State Building from 'Top of the Rock'; view of Manhattan from the Staten Island Ferry

In describing our next activity I should warn anyone judgmental of tele-series addicts to please stop reading now. To give you some background, since leaving Australia I’ve become a fresh ‘addictee’ (is that a word? Spell check doesn’t think so) of ‘Dexter’, and have tapped into a post addiction,‘Sex in the City’. While perhaps I should be questioning their values - one is about a family man serial killer, the other about four women who focus their lives on sex - I just blame Mexico and its cheap box-sets. An addict always deflects. Anyway, when you place something addictive under the nose of an addict you’re bound to expect the dependence to rear its ugly head. And that’s just what happened to us, two ‘Sex in the City’ addicts in New York City.

Buzzing with the hit of landing in the Big Apple and with some careful research behind us, we took ourselves on a self-guided ‘Sex in the City’ tour and, usually irritated by tourist hoards, took the unusual step of joining other fanatics and visiting film locations such as ‘Carrie’s stoop’ (the spot of many a good-night kiss), and the ‘Magnolia Bakery’ (where Carrie first revealed her Aiden crush to Miranda), also where we of course indulged in a ‘Carrie cupcake’. On another evening we found ourselves watching an open-air Roman Polanski film in Bryant Park, the location where the girls attended New York Fashion Week. I could let the addiction keep talking but I’m sure you get the point. I’ll just quit now while I’m ahead.

L-R: 'Carrie's stoop'; the line-up outside the Magnolia Bakery; pre-devoured Carrie cupcakes

I’m sounding painfully touristy aren’t I? Well while I’ve admitted that, for the most part, our time in NYC was very touristy, we did do something drastic, something even many Manhattaners are afraid to do: we left the island and spent the day in the Brooklyn burbs. Starting in the East side, we walked over the Williamsburgh Bridge, taking in Manhattan from a different perspective, and found ourselves on Bedford Ave. Map-less and tired, having walked down what was much longer an Avenue than we’d anticipated, we managed to get ourselves to Prospect Park, Brooklyn’s equally impressive but underrated equivalent to Central Park. Here we took in some sun before heading past the beautiful Green-wood Cemetery to Brooklyn’s China Town where we enjoyed Yum Cha (apparently called ‘Dim Sum’ in every other country bar Australia). And yes, you’ll be relieved to hear that after a day on the dark side we arrived that evening unscathed back in Manhattan.

L-R: view of Manhattan from the Williamsburgh Bridge; Prospect Park

With a night flight out of NYC we spent our last hours fitting in some final must-sees: Central Park and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, where I basked in the amazing collections on show, this place is really something. And with some of the best NYC has to offer under our belts – theatre, art, and of course that NYC attitude – we left the Big Apple for London, a touch of unexpected class thrown in when we were upgraded to business class. How fittingly ‘Sex in the City’.

Saturday, August 28, 2010

Mexico City in photos

Mexico City is a great one. A cultural melting pot with a rich history and once home to the brilliant Frida Kahlo, you’re never short of something to do – people gazing in the enormous Zocalo, admiring a Rivera fresco or having a history lesson at the magnificent Teotihuacan site. For me, Mexico City round two was every bit as exciting as my first visit, except this time by the end of the week my feet were in agony after walking what felt like every inch of the city. Perhaps I’m being a bit lazy (considering all the blog catch up I have), but I’ve chosen to make this post a visual one, mainly because I find Mexico such a visual country with its colourful culture, it’s Capital is no different. See if you agree…

'El Palacio de Bellas Artes'; the 'Blue House' Frida Kahlo shared with Diego Rivera.

The 17th century 'Templo de Santiago' church at Tlatelolco; view from the Virgin Guadalupe's shrine.

 A piece in the Diego Rivera Museum; the ubiquitous bettle in a Taxco plaza.

 The Chapultepec Castle in Chapultepec park; our first try of the crispy-shelled tacos 'dorado'.

 The site of Teotihuacan from the Pyramid of the Moon; having a break.

On a day trip from Mexico City we just beat the rain in Taxco, Mexico's silver capital.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Surf's up, in a really big way!

A friend of mine who’d been to Puerto Escondido on Mexico’s Pacific coast had told me that unless I was into surfing, there wasn’t much else to do besides chill out over a Corona on the beach. Sounded good to me. What we soon found out was that if you’re not into surfing, you shouldn’t really be into swimming either, if you want to enjoy Puerto Escondido at this time of year. This is mainly because you’d need flippers and a tail if you want any chance of surviving in surf that size, at least that was how this little city girl felt. On top of the surf situation we had the rain situation, which made sun baking or visiting Puerto’s calmer surrounding beaches a little difficult.

So what did we do in the five days we were there? Well that’s a good question. Let’s see, there were a fair few beers consumed, as predicted, at the ‘Osa Mariposa’ hostel where we got right into the creative vegetarian menu – ever tried carrot and coconut soup? It's good. One afternoon was spent under a threatening sky on the beach, watching the trials for a Quicksilver pro-surfing competition, all the while searching for Kelly Slater, but alas, not finding him (does he even surf anymore?). We did make the most of the surfer infested nightlife one night, and enjoyed the company of a couple of Scandinavians who’d been knocked out in the first round and were intent on spending the rest of their time posing as Ben Affleck’s security guards ("Ben Affleck" being an unfortunate Dutch look-alike). They did manage to score some free shots at the bar for "Ben" and his posse, so perhaps the Dutchman wasn't so unfortunate after all.

So when I look back on Puerto Escondido it was a nice enough place for a non-surfer to relax, but it’s probably a better idea that the non-surfer avoid the rainy season. By day five we’d watched a little too much ‘Sex in the City’ and ‘Dexter’ episodes while cooped up in our hostel room. We were itching to get outdoors in Mexico City where the forecast for the week ahead was sun, sun, sun!

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Dancing in the street (BYO pineapple)

There’s no better time to visit a place than during a festival. There’s always an air of excitement and anticipation, people are happy, plazas are buzzing, and in Mexico, it’s all about music and colour. We arrived in Oaxaca City as it was preparing for its annual Guelaguetza festival, when representatives from local communities perform regional folk dances in traditional clothing. Most people associate this festival the female dancers from the Papaloapan region who dance with pineapples. So you can imagine that at this time, the city is a buzz with activity and although we actually missed the formal parade, we were there for a pre-festival run-through down the main street, and got a preview of the costumes, colours, and of course, the pineapples.

We arrived in Oaxaca after an overnight bus ride from Puerto Escondido. Once we got over our annoyance at a local policeman who’d given us wrong directions and caused us to catch a cab three blocks, and over our giggling at a room mate’s insistence on detailing the past sample she’d produced for a traveller’s diarrhoea trial, we were able to appreciate our hostel. ‘Hostel Don Nino’ was a far cry from the grubby place we’d stayed in San Cristobal. This place was anal about cleanliness, in a good way, and was more like a hotel than a hostel. And, after doing the red eye on a bus, who wouldn’t appreciate hot, high pressured showers pimped up a bit with shampoo, conditioner and body wash pumps. We even had our beds made each day, which usually took place while we were enjoying a hearty Mexican breakfast. So we were off to a good start in Oaxaca City.

Unfortunately, however, the rain followed us, but thankfully nowhere near to the extent of San Cristobal. So with the weather in our favour, we spent a lot of time cruising around the city centre and enjoying the festive vibe. We worked our way from the main plaza to what we thought was the ‘Palacio Gobierno’ (but which turned out to be more of a children’s interactive museum) and continued on to the main market where we resisted offers of dried grasshoppers, apparently a specialty in these parts. We made the obligatory visit to the beautiful Santa Domingo church and also explored the cultural centre next door, which had an impressive view of the botanical garden and its impressive number of cacti species.

And a typical day for us isn’t without some form of culinary experience. Although we drew the line at grasshoppers we did get stuck into the street food, which is amazing all over Mexico. I also fell in love with a gorgeous little café called ‘Pan & Co’ which served up a pretty good cappuccino (difficult to find in Central and South America). One night we enjoyed the cuisine at ‘Café Real’, where the menu offering of lamb chops was irresistible to my Australian lamb-loving pallet. We also fell victim to the café’s wine list, which had us enjoying an uncharacteristic night out on the town with a 52-year-old divorcee from Seattle!

Clockwise from left: the Convent attached to Santa Domingo,
activity in the Zocalo, balloons in the Zocalo, Santa Domingo church

One thing that comes to mind when people think of Mexico is - yep, I know you’re thinking it - tequila. Since our visit to Oaxaca we’ve learned that tequila is made from the blue agave plant and the very similar tasting mezcal is made from any variety of agave. The week we were in Oaxaca was also the week the International Mezcal festival rolled into town and it happened to be in the plaza directly opposite our hostel. It would have been silly not to have gone, but was it a little over the top to have gone twice, the second time just hours before an 11 hour night bus to Puerto Escondido? All I can say is that life is one big learning experience. After many a ‘tasting’, one at 48% alcohol, I now know how to do a tequila/mezcal shot without getting the gag-worthy sting at the end. The Mexicans sure know a thing or two when it comes to the art of drinking Mezcal! In hindsight though, I’m wondering if perhaps the festival contributed to my sleepless night on the bus to Puerto Escondido, or maybe it was just Murphy’s Law, that the last overnight bus trip I took in South and Central America be my worst.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Rain, rain, go away!

Every country has one and we happened to arrive in Mexico smack bang in the middle of its rainy season. While it didn’t seem to bother us in our first couple of weeks, in San Cristobal de las Casas the rain was ruthless. The good side of this was that we caught up on a lot of sleep and blog writing (so much for that now), and a few sessions of ‘Sex in the City’ for good measure. The down side? Walking around a city in ankle deep water isn’t the biggest crowd pleaser and the thought of a sleep in or a warm cup of coffee in a cosy cafe was far more enticing than looking like a drowned street rat. So while this colourful place had many an activity to keep us occupied, we spent the majority of our four days there indoors, listening to the sound of the rain outside. Ice-cream shops got a good run, vegemite toasties became a morning ritual and the local restaurants got some business. My favourite was the authentic hole-in-the-wall ‘Napoli Ristorante’, the Italian born owner serving up a mean cannelloni and Hawaiian pizza, it really was exceptional.

The colours of San Cristobal

We did, however, take advantage of the sunshine on the rare occasion when it would emerge. Mornings were the best bet at which time we coupled sunshine with sightseeing and exercise, stair climbs being the torture of choice. One morning we made a dash up to the Church of the Virgin de Guadalupe and had what felt like an asthma attack at the top, forgetting how high the altitude was (nearly 2100m). On another morning we went to the ‘mirador’ (viewpoint) where we found outdoor gym equipment, just in case our legs hadn’t had a good enough workout on the way up.

On our last day we got lucky. The heavens took a day off and gave us a full day of sunshine, making it the perfect day for a trip to the ‘Canyon Sumidero’, which at points is 1km high. We spent two hours lapping up the sun in the motorised tour boat, getting up close and personal with the spectacular waterfalls while at the same time keeping a safe distance from the crocodiles sunning themselves on the bank. It was kind of reminiscent of a family camping trip to the Katherine Gorge, except that unfortunately parts of the Canyon were quite polluted due to the rain having brought rubbish from other water sources. Despite that it's a really worthwhile day trip for anyone visiting San Cristobal.

What was not worthwhile was approaching the local tailor about replacing a zip on my backpack, a process he said would take a day but which instead took four. In the end I had to harass some other tailors for his home address, knock on his door (opened by his teenage son) and demand that he give me back my bag back. This was only a few hours before we caught a night bus to Oaxaca City, so I was a little stressed. Had I not put on my angry pants I think backpacking without a pack would have been quite a challenge.

Back on board

Blogging while travelling is a difficult task. Often we're in a new place every second or third day, seeing new sites, all the while trying to keep an up to date record of it all. I’m surprised I’ve come this far without throwing in the towel, but in saying that, now that I’m almost six weeks behind on posts, lately it's been tempting. But with the thought of returning home with a colourful record of my year-long adventure and my Dad’s favourite piece of advice in the back of my mind – ‘persevere’ – I’m back on board. So I'm here, sitting on a bus from Madrid to Valencia, taking myself back to Mexico and our July 8 arrival in San Cristobal de las Casas…

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Ruined out

Yes, there. I said it. I'm completely ruined out. That's right, me and the Mayan pyramids need some space. Don't get me wrong, I'm so lucky to have been able to set eyes on these ancient marvels and it's been fascinating wandering, and in some cases climbing, through civilizations that have remained amazingly intact for centuries, but quite frankly I'm exhausted! There's an art to visiting ruin sites. First you have to beat the hoards of tourists who show up in buses at 9am, or thereabouts. This often means a pre-dawn wake-up call, because once these guys are on the scene any chance of capturing the greatness of a solitary pyramid or enjoying the silence of the jungle goes out the window. Hand-in-hand with tourists are the haggling vendors. These guys reserve spaces within the national parks and one by one attempt at convincing you to purchase a 'treasure'. Do they think I came all the way to buy a ceramic plate? Next there's the question of whether to get a guide or not and, from much experience, for tours lasting a couple of hours I'm going to go with no. A guide usually means being in a big group (more competition for people-less pics) and too often their personal anecdotes make something which could be enjoyed in three hours labour on for a frustrating five. Finally, at those sites that are unrestricted, there's what I'll call the ruin workout. It may not sound like much but if you're like me and have to explore every nook and cranny, coupled with being a tad out of shape, climbing these masses can be strenuous. Think stair climbs x 20! I sound negative don't I? I'm not really. In ruin talk, over two weeks I saw a true backyard jungle, some seriously primely located real estate, a seventh wonder and a hieroglyphs heaven! So while I may not be booking the first flight to Egypt, I don't regret a single minute spent at any of these sites (except maybe hours four and five with our guide in Tikal).

Clockwise from top left: Tikal, Tulum, Chichen Itza and Palenque

First was Guatemala's Tikal. If you're familiar with Tikal you'll have images of enormous stone structures poking out onto the horizon from underneath lush jungle. People had told us the site was amazing and, as our first ruins visit in a while, we made Flores our next stop. The plan was to, once in Flores, take an hour long bus to the Tikal National Park where we'd sleep the night and get up at the crack of dawn to watch the sun rise from one of the ancient temples. The only problem was that it was a Sunday and by the time we'd got there the last Tikal-bound bus had left. Now to be honest, Flores isn't a place you'd spend more than a day in, and we certainly weren't about to exceed that, so we cut our losses and signed up for a tour which would pick us up from our hostel at 4:30am. Cue early wake-up.

And henceforth the organised-tour-induced frustration commenced. First it was the waiting 40 minutes to collect other tourists from within a 200m radius of where we sat parked. Sunlight emerging. Then there was the announcement that, 'oh the park entry fee isn't included', at which point most of those who took 40 minutes to get to the tour bus retreated to their accommodation for extra cash. Sun appearing on horizon. Then there was the inescapable petrol station stop. Sun rising. In short, my painful early morning - a sacrifice for the sake of watching the sunrise atop a temple - was all but lost in the back of a tour bus. I did get one measly through-the-grubby-window shot of what was a brilliant sky.

Irritation aside, we reached Tikal in one piece and, being pre-9am, we were one of the few tourist groups there. Also putting aside the gag-worthy onion smelling ceiba trees and a guide who said in a twisted Guatemalan/US accent: 'you get what I mean guys?', after every sentence, Tikal was a truly extraordinary place and surpassed my expectations, well all but the sunrise one. The immensity of the temples which sit undisturbed in the middle of a monkey-filled jungle was at times unworldly. A friend of mine described it as like a scene from Star Wars, maybe a little greener and without the space ships. Added to the enjoyment of it all (and possibly to the future detriment of the site) is the fact that you can climb all over these age-old relics, which is what we did over the next five hours, scurrying over small scale pyramids and hauling ourselves up steep temple stairs to marvel at the stone studded horizon. As the opening act to our highly anticipated ruins circuit, the once kingdom of King Moon Double Comb - love that name - was going to be pretty hard to beat.


The next stop on the ruin itinerary was Tulum, Mexico. This meant another day-long bus ride, a few border crossings and, as we're now used to with Central America travel, a few surprises along the way. Surprises like a stopover in Belize City which we were asured would not happen, making the seven hour journey eleven. Oh, and then there was the illegal 'border crossing fee' we were charged when we crossed from Guatemala to Belize, just another one to addto the list. It wasn't until 1am that we arrived in Tulum and crashed at 'The Weary Backpacker' hostel (appropriate name considering the state we were in), although the blood-stained sheet I discovered I'd been sleeping on when I woke up made the decision to move on an easy one (yuuuuuukk!!). We were much more comfortable staying at the 'Papaya Playa' beach resort where we gladly succumbed to happy hour, the Spanish bar tender throwing in a few freebies. The best part about this place was that it was nesting season for sea turtles and on beach walk one night, from a distance we saw an enormous turtle haul herself up the beach before laying her eggs in the dunes and returning to the ocean.

Swinging bar seats at Papaya Playa and sea turtle nesting tracks

But what we'd really come for were the ruins, and let me just say that if I'd been a Mayan back in the day, Tulum would have been the ultimate beach-town getaway. Although nowhere near the incredible scale of Tikal, the draw card is all about location, location, location. Perched high on the coastline and surrounded by the oh so familiar Caribbean turquoise, Tulum is like a picture postcard. And considering we could only withstand the Mexican heat for an hour or so, the hour we did spend there was well worth it, it was stunning.


With Chichen Itza and Palenque on the horizon we decided to give the ruins a breather and take a stab at the cheesy Cancun and Isla Mujers. Turns out there was a little too much cheese for us there (except at the amazing 'Comono' Turkish restaurant where the Mediterranean cheese plate was exquisite) and, having spent less than 24 hours in the tourist infested hubs, we settled on the quieter city of Merida, close to the west coast. This was definitely more our style with its leafy family packed plazas and music filled streets. The icing on the cake was the 'Hostel Zocalo' which served up an impressive spread of fresh fruit and cereal to kick start every day and had a fully equipped kitchen for our love of cooking. Big tick!

For us, Merida was for relaxing. We spent our days wandering the streets, enjoying the weekend festivities and watching the pensioners-only salsa club dance up a storm. On one day we ventured to the nearby Celestun where we were tempted by the promise of Flamingo sightings but were disappointed when, on arrival, we were told that because it was 'low season' the flamingos preferred to stay out of public view. Perhaps, we thought, this was a sign that we should have stayed on the relaxation train in Merida or maybe should return to our scheduled ruins visits. The latter prevailed and the next day we were awake by 5am and at Chichen Itza by 8am.

Charged by a $5 cappuccino from the exorbitantly priced coffee cart, I was ready to go. And Chichen Itza gets straight down to business. Staring at us on entry was the object of the seventh wonder title, 'El Castillo' or, 'the Castle', a huge four-sided pyramid in the centre of an expansive green lawn, its plumed serpent carving guarding the steps to the temple at the top. Had we visited in April we might have caught Elton John performing alongside the massive structure. And such carvings are definitely one of the most striking things about these ruins, similar ones can to be seen all over the site, my favourtie were those of human skulls on the Tzompantli. We wandered through the ball court, having fun with its acoustics along the way, and left the 'Caracol' or 'snail' (sometimes referred to as the observatory) just before the bus loads of tourists piled in. As we self-guided ourselves through each stone structure, what I found astonishing was how evident the sophistication and mathematical brilliance of these people was. For example, in the observatory which was built specifically around the astronomical path of Venus, or the Castillo which was constructed in a way so that, during the Spring and Autumn equinox, the shadow of a plumed serpent appears on the pyramid's face. These people were brainy!

Chichen Itza

At this point, and as the subject of this post would suggest, we were almost ruined out. We'd visited three major sites in under two weeks and my body shuddered at the thought of another early morning, us against the tourtist buses. We discussed over our last dinner in Merida, 'should we or shouldn't we?' After Palenque we were off to San Cristobal de las Casas and it was tempting to go straight there. There must have been something in the delicious sun-dried tomato and goat's cheese sauce that topped my spaghetti at Cafe Chocolate because there was a change in my mood, I was determined to conquer Palenque. Our new plan was relatively straight forward: we'd finish dinner, catch the night bus to Palenque, be there by 8am, see the site and hop on a bus to San Cristobal. And that's just what we did. The added bonus? The local drunk who insisted on accompanying us to the Merida bus station. 'Welcome, I've been looking for you guys', he said to our blank faces. 'I am the light and the way'. At this point, I was pretty sure he wasn't Jesus Christ. In any case he made our final hour in Merida a good one, and as we said our goodbyes and he waded through the ankle-deep water that had flooded the road, his last words were reassuring: 'Don't worry about me, I'm a Warrior'.

So at this point of our travels, we were getting pretty tired. Night buses are never good news, I'd like to meet one person who has slept the whole way through on a night bus. We wanted food, showers and sleep in that order and what we were about to get was humidity, naggy vendors and stair climbs (Palenque is another site where climbing the ruins is permitted). So I'm not going to lie, I can't say we realised Palenque's full potential. We were there by 9am, did some wandering around the spacious site, took some pics of the unspoiled hieroglyphics and decided to make a dash for the 11.30 bus to San Cristobal. Maybe next time I come back I'll dedicate a couple more hours to poor old Palenque, but I'd survived an intense fortnight mastering the art of ruins touring, and let me tell you, it was no mean feat.