Tag Archives: solo travel

Travelling on long distance buses in Mexico

I have travelled around Mexico a few times and always catching long distance buses. I find it easy, cheap and a good way to travel.

ADO, the largest bus company in Mexico, covers the whole country – some parts more than others – and you can even buy tickets online in advance. I used www.ado.com.mx/ado2 to check travel times and www.clickbus.com.mx to buy my tickets. In one occasion I decided to change my date of travel and changing ticket at the ADO station was a quick and smooth process.

Long distance ADO buses are very comfortable, with wide seats, lots of leg room, TV, a/c and toilets on board. They are also reasonably priced: a first class ticket from Cancun to Chetumal (6hrs) cost me less than MEX$400 (around £14)!

I caught ADO also from Cancun airport to the main bus terminal in town. The airport bus service runs every half hour and takes around 35min to town. For MEX$70 it’s a much better deal than any form of private transport (taxi or hotel shuttle).

When I was in Bacalar I then discovered another bus company, called Mayab. It is part of the ADO group, serving mainly the states of Yucatan and Quintana Roo, and provides cheaper service than the main ADO. The downside is that buses are not as good and travel times are longer due to the higher number of stops, yet they offer a valid and cheaper alternative to ADO. Tickets can be bought online using the ADO website or at bus stations themselves.

And how about the experience of travelling with lots of local people and discovering the country at a slower pace?!

I am a traveller, not a tourist

I am a traveller, not a tourist.

You are a traveller, not a tourist.

We love discovering places, experiencing their authentic side, going under the surface of what glossy tourist magazines show. Smell. Taste. Breathe. Explore.

That’s why we get along. That’s why we immediately click when we meet along the road.

We meet at bus stations, in hostels, at food markets, walking around small towns away from the main tourist paths, sitting on piers while watching the stars.

We talk about the meaning of travelling, the meaning of life, we exchange stories and experiences, we get richer every time, we feel part of a large community, of a family. We belong to the same soul group.

Back home we are often the quirky ones. The ones who never seem to fit in. Our approach to travel, our gypsy heart and our life choices set us apart from most of our family and friends. Comfort doesn’t do it for us. Neither does routine. We love adventure. We love exploring. We need to push our boundaries. We love the sense of freedom. We want to experience the world and learn from it. We crave for it.

That’s why we travel. That’s why we pack our bags so often and always go somewhere new, somewhere where we haven’t been before.

And on the road we meet other travellers. Other people like us.

To all my fellow travellers, to all the friends I have made during all my travels over the years: this is for you. This is a celebration of the spirit that joins us, of our times together and the memories we’ve made. It doesn’t matter if we spent one week, one day, or just one hour together: what we shared crosses boundaries of space and time, ignores our differences in age, nationality and background, and makes us part of a large community with unbreakable bonds.fb_img_1488070750981

Isla Mujeres – part 1

mexicophotogallery_062
Statue of a woman in Isla Mujeres

The Island of Women. This is what the name “Isla Mujeres” means. Half hour by ferry from Cancun, this small island (7Km in length) has become in recent years a very popular tourist destination for those who are not so keen on the Cancun party scene and prefer a quieter environment.

mexicophotogallery_066Yet for me, arriving from quiet Bacalar and largely undeveloped Caye Caulker, it was like being in Las Vegas by the sea. I hated the crowds that packed the beaches during the day and the streets/restaurants/shops/bars in the evening. Too many tourists, not enough authenticity.

But there are reasons for the crowds: the island is beautiful.
Playa Norte (North Beach) – with its crystal clear waters and white sand – is amazing. I spent a lot of time in and out of the water, also to cool down from the heat.

The Malecon (esplanade) offers opportunities for leisurely walks. It was especially busy with families on Christmas day, everyone enjoyed the waves and the sea breeze. A section of the Malecon gets busier towards sunset, when fitness-addicts  appear for jogging and a varied range of outdoor gym-related activities. After dark you will also find people sitting for a relaxing end of the day in front of the sea.

The main town is certainly full of tourist shops but if you just wander away from the crowds and explore the streets further away from the main pedestrianised area, you will find interesting sights, including lots of beautiful murals painted on the house walls.

And if you want to buy souvenirs, avoid the overpriced shops along the main drag and head to the Artisan’s Market just off the town centre. Nothing is better than buying something that has just been sewn in front of you! And how about those old Singer sewing machines?!

More on Isla Mujeres in my next post…

Flying over the Blue Hole, Belize

 

Being someone who rarely splurges money when on holiday, preferring cheap or free activities, the US$200 for the 1-hr scenic flight over the Blue Hole in Belize seemed the result of a moment of madness.
Yet I had chosen this option because I had heard that as a snorkeller, and not a diver, the Blue Hole would be a disappointing experience and not worth the 2+ hour one-way boat ride. Plus, we only live once hey!

What is the Blue Hole, though? It is a giant submarine sinkhole (like a cenote in the ocean) off the coast of Belize. The hole is circular in shape, over 300m across and 125m deep. The world’s largest natural formation of its kind, the Blue Hole is part of the larger Barrier Reef Reserve System, a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

The tour agency I had chosen for this teamed me up with two other female travellers – a minimum of three people is required for a scenic flight to be arranged and I had contacted the agency via email prior to my arrival.

The small 4-seater plane picked us up at the Caye Caulker airstrip, at the southern end of the island. The pilot, very friendly Mr Hoy, briefly ran us through the security basics and the itinerary. Twenty minutes to get to the Blue Hole, fly twice around the Hole from the left, twice from the right, twice across the middle, then return. All so exciting!

I sat in the cockpit, next to the pilot. And we took off.
The view of Caye Caulker and its reef from above was amazing but it was only when we got to the reef around the Blue Hole that my jaw dropped. The pilot kept tilting the aircraft to a 90degree angle and my stomach started suffering. But the view from above was spectacular! The Blue Hole stands out within the reef because of its dark blue colour and its circular shape. We went round it a few times, descending very close to the water at times. It felt as if we could almost touch it. Such an incredible feeling!

On the way back we circled around a shipwreck stuck in the reef. The photo opportunities certainly didn’t lack.

When I saw the straight line of the Caye Caulker airstrip appearing in the distance I was sad that the flight was over. But it had indeed been worth every cent spent on it!

I fell in love with Caye Caulker

 

I fell in love with Caye Caulker the moment I got off the water taxi, in a mild December evening.
White sand under my feet as I walked down the street looking for my guesthouse, houses in pastel colours, locals cheerfully welcoming the new arrivals to the island, music everywhere, a strong Caribbean feel.

Go Slow

Belize "Caye Caulker"Go Slow is the motto here. Everything is relaxed, very laid back, no one rushes. There are no cars in Caye Caulker. Everyone walks or cycles everywhere. If you want a taxi you’ll hop into a golf cart.

There isn’t much to do on the island, and there is a lot to do at the same time. Plenty of tour agencies offer diving, snorkelling, kayaking, paddleboarding, scenic flights, boat tours. Or you can hire a bicycle and explore this tiny island (about 8Km long) on your own. Or just sit by the beach and relax.

Everyone seems to go to the Split and the Lazy Lizard bar during the day and to the Sports Bar in the evening. The local guys will tell you about the Sports Bar as soon as you arrive.

I fell in love with Caye Caulker. Small but with a lot to do if you are curious.

Explore the tiny island with a curious eye and an open mind. Enter the shops. Talk to the local people. Walk barefoot. Buy a fresh juice from a grocery stall. Eat fryjacks. Take a yoga class. Hang out at the Split during the day. Swim in the clear Caribbean waters. Eat seafood. Watch the sunset. Enjoy the sea breeze.

But most of all Go Slow and savour every moment in Caye Caulker. Because when you’re gone you will miss it. And more than you think.

Getting from Chetumal to Caye Caulker: a story from Latin America

I wanted to go to Caye Caulker, the small Belizean island everyone was talking about. The “go slow” island.

To get there I chose the water taxi route via Chetumal. Two companies cover the international transfer from Chetumal to Caye Caulker and its larger neighbour San Pedro and they run one service a day, on alternate days. I traveled with San Pedro Water Jets and booked my tickets online (US$120 return!) a couple of weeks before travelling. I must say that I wasn’t particularly impressed by the lack of data and payment security in all transactions involved – hey this is the 21st century, why do I have to enter all my card details on an Excel spreadsheet that I am then expected to email back?! I had no choice though, either that or you have to turn up at the ferry terminal on the day and hope that there are seats available.

At the ferry terminal in Chetumal everything ran smooth, though, all was well organised albeit slow. Reservation checked, tickets picked up, luggage taken care of, speedy immigration checks to exit Mexico (leaving my wallet MEX$390 lighter!).

Then an army van arrived. Three officers in camo uniform and carrying machine guns got off. What the heck is going on, I thought. Luggage inspection! A slow process of checking our large bags, all lined up by the boat, started. The sniffer dog did the job. Three times. When done with the large luggage we were asked to line up all our hand luggage on the ground and stand behind it, at a distance. The dog walked up and down sniffing all small bags a few times. We were all curious and slightly nervous at the same time. No matter how certain you are that you are not carrying anything of concern, three Mexican army officers with machine guns are not your preferred sight… When one of the rucksacks was identified by the sniffer dog as potentially suspicious and the owner had to walk forward and open everything for further inspection, we were all watching on tenterhooks. It was like a movie.

Eventually we departed. 1.5hrs later we reached the island of San Pedro where we got off the water taxi and waited to have our names called one by one to create a line (it felt like being back to primary school…). Inside the immigration building we had our passport stamped and the customs form taken, and paid US$1.5 for entry fee to Belize. It took forever but eventually those of us who were continuing to Caye Caulker got on a smaller speed boat and after another half hour we reached our final destination. The sun had already set.

So all in all everything ran smooth but the system seemed very old fashioned and extremely slow…and I thought that crossing the land border between Cambodia and Thailand had been snail-paced!

A few days later the return from Caye Caulker to Chetumal was done more or less in the same way, with an exit tax from Belize of US$20 and an entry tax to Mexico of MEX$390. Quite an expensive part of my whole trip… But it was all worth it. And you’ll see why in my next post!

La laguna de Bacalar

If you are planning to spend time in the eastern part of the Yucatan peninsula (Quintana Roo state) but are not keen on the tourist crowds of places like Cancun and Playa del Carmen, why not heading south towards Bacalar? The ‘laguna de Bacalar’ (Bacalar lake) is located about 5-6 hours from Cancun by bus (40 minutes from the nearby Chetumal), close to the border with Belize. Not as popular as the rest of the peninsula, it is an absolute jewel and deserves a few days’ visit.

When I quickly researched online info about the area before travelling, what really attracted me were the amazing colours of this “laguna des siete colores” (lake of the seven colours, because of its different shades of blue). And the opportunity for lots of outdoor activities.

Crystal-clear waters and white sands characterise the lake, which is about 42Km long and no more than 2Km wide. It looks amazing even on a dark sky day. You can imagine the feeling of watching great sunrises and then jumping in the lake for a very early morning swim!

You could spend the whole day just sitting by the shore and relaxing and going for a swim every now and then. But there is more to do around the Bacalar lake. Here is what I did:

Boat tour
I joined a catamaran tour arranged by my hostel and we sailed up and down the lake for three hours. One  of the stops was at the Canal de Los Piratas (Canal of the Pirates). 34Km-long, its mouth is characterised by sulfur mud that can be used as skin exfoliant. We did indeed have a bit of a body scrub there, hehe. The water was crystal clear and you’d think you were in the Caribbean sea, not in a freshwater lake. We also went to the Cenote de las Brujas, one of the many cenotes (sinkholes) in the area. Snorkelling at the edge of the cenote was a way to see some fish but don’t expect anything extraordinary. Yet the experience of floating in the water over a hole that is about 110m deep is not to be missed!

Kayaking
Whether you join an organised tour or just rent a kayak from your hostel or guesthouse (if they offer the service), I strongly recommend this activity. I rented kayaks with friends for 2 hours and we crossed the lake to reach the Canal de Los Piratas again. Great paddle in the late afternoon and it was so much fun!

Cycling
Thought about renting a bicycle? This is a great way to explore the area. I cycled to the Cenote Azul, the most popular in the area because of its diving opportunities and easy access from the road. The 6.5Km ride (each way) on up-and-down roads on a heavy and old fashioned bicycle was a bit of a struggle at times. But jumping into the cenote water at the end made it all worth it.

Tired of being active and just want to relax? Well, you can explore the town of Bacalar. Watch out for my next post for that!

A Troodos mountain adventure

I had hoped to go trekking in the Troodos mountains but my hopes were soon shattered: no tours were available on my dates (no one wants to go trekking when it’s so hot, I was told).
And now?!
I decided to look online to find adventure tours that explored the area, then contacted one of them, was redirected to another one who was running a jeep tour on one of the dates I was interested in, and ended up joining a tour run by EcoTour Adventures.

Andreas (the guide and driver, and owner of the business) picked me up very early in the morning. Four more people were part of the same tour. And the jeep adventure began!

The day was spent exploring the Troodos mountain area, checking out semi-abandoned villages, waterfalls, streams, monasteries, wineries, driving off-road as often as we could, enjoying the ever changing landscape, noticing how Cyprus not only has beautiful beaches and semi-desert vegetation but also thick pine forests  that you wouldn’t expect in such climate.

Our first stop was the Asprokremmos reservoir and dam, the second largest in Cyprus. We paid attention to the surrounding barren landscape, before heading to the deep forest of the Troodos.

Cyprus Asprokremmos reservoir
Asprokremmos Reservoir

We then stopped in the village of Salamiou, where we had Greek coffee before heading to the gorgeousTzelefos Venetian bridge, which is located deep in the forest. This is only one of the medieval bridges in the area, but is meant to be the most beautiful. The whole area is quite scenic and we enjoyed going for a brief walk in the forest.

We couldn’t miss a visit to the Agios Ioannis Lambadistis monastery, located near the Kalopanayiotis village and now listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. This monastery is considered one of the most interesting byzantine sites in Cyprus and displays some amazing paintings dating back to different historic periods (11th to 19th century).

Cyprus Troodos "Agios Ioannis Lampadistis monastery"
Outside the Agios Ioannis Lampadistis monastery

Driving higher up the mountains we then reached Prodromos, the highest village in Cyprus at 1,380 metres above sea level. Here we stopped at a local family-run restaurant for lunch and I had souvla, one of the traditional dishes in Cyprus. Souvla is basically large pieces of meat cooked on a long skewer over a charcoal barbecue (not to be confused with the Greek souvlaki, apparently). Delicious!

How about the Chantara waterfall? Said to be the most beautiful of Cyprus, it’s located in a stunning and peaceful forest area. I cannot really comment much on the waterfall itself as water was a bit lacking at the end of September. Rain would only start later in the season.

Our last stop consisted of a visit to the Nelion winery for a quick tour of the wine-making facilities and a wine tasting session. The view from the main house was beautiful, rolling hills and vineyards everywhere around us.

The day flew by. If/when I go back to Cyprus, I will definitely plan for some trekking in the Troodos (picking the right season this time…). The area is definitely worth spending more time in it!

The archaeological treasures of Pafos

In ancient times, Pafos was the capital of Cyprus and thanks to its exceptional architectural and historic value it is now listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
There are several areas of archaeological interest, mainly in the Kato Pafos area, all of them worth a visit during your time there.

Pafos Archaeological Site
Located just behind the harbour, this is the area where most of the remains from the Hellenistic and Roman periods are located. You can easily spend a couple of hours walking around and appreciating the ruins of ancient villas, palaces, tombs. But the highlights of this area are the beautiful mosaics in the Houses of Dionysos, Theseus, Aion and Orpheus, some of the finest of the Roman times. Excavations are still ongoing and you will find evidence of that!
(Entry fee €4.50).

Solomon’s Catacombs and Agios Lambrianos rock cut tombs
These two sites are almost next to each other along the main road that leaves Pafos harbour heading towards the new Kings Avenue Mall. Walk down the steep steps to visit the catacombs then enjoy the enormous underground caverns of the rock cut tombs, they are definitely interesting sites.

Panagia Chrysopolitissa Church and St. Pauls’ Pillar
The foundations,  some of the marble columns and remains of the original floor mosaics are what’s left of the original 4th century basilica. On the same site is the so-called St. Paul’s Pillar, where according to tradition St. Paul was flogged.

Tombs of the Kings
A couple of Km north of Kato Pafos, this is a large site of underground tombs dating back to the 4th century BC located on barren landscape facing the sea. Despite the name, it was not a royal burial site. The well preserved underground tombs are unique in Cyprus as influenced by ancient Egyptian tradition.
(Entry fee €2.50).

Enough of history and archaeology? Wait for the next post then ;-).

Nicosia: the last divided capital

I decided to take the 2-hr bus journey from Pafos to Nicosia (cost: Euro 7) mainly because I wanted to cross the Green Line, the border between the Greek part (South Nicosia, Lefkosia) and the Turkish part (North Nicosia, Lefkosa) of the capital city of Cyprus. The idea of a capital city still split between two countries – so many years after the end of a similar situation in Berlin – sounded very interesting.

As most tourist, I reached the border via Lidras (or Ledras) Street, a pedestrianised area in South Nicosia full of the usual high street stores and cafes. Passport checks were quick and relaxed, and within a couple of minutes I was on the other side.

"Green line" Nicosia Cyprus
The sign at the border between Greek and Turkish Nicosia

It was a very surreal experience, though: the vibe in North Nicosia is very different from the South, it is very Arabic/Turkish and it reminded me of Marrakech. Apart from the border crossing area I didn’t see many tourists and the streets and narrow alleys of the Old City were largely empty.

I wandered around for a few hours, checking out the main sites of Lefkosa but also losing myself in the alleys of the old town, soaking up in the atmosphere.
Here is what I saw:

Büyük Han – considered one of the finest buildings in Cyprus, it was built in the 16th century. Originally a caravansarai, it was restored in the 1990s and is now a thriving arts centre, with galleries, workshops, cafes and souvenir shops.

Selimiye Camii (Mosque) – also known as the Cathedral of Saint Sophia, this is now an unusual mix of Western cathedral and mosque, with landmark minaret towers that can be seen from most of Nicosia. The building is a beautiful example of a Roman Catholic cathedral, built mostly in the 13th century. Taken over by the Ottomans in 1570 it was then converted into a mosque and the minarets were added to the building.

The Bedesten – another example of a church that was converted to a mosque during the Ottoman period, and is now a cultural centre.

Belediye Pazari (also known as the Bandabulya) – for a lover of traditional markets like me, this was quite a disappointment. Apart from a few grocery stalls, where most locals gathered, the market was largely empty and only a handful of souvenir shops were open. I was quickly out of it, not before having bought a silver ankle bracelet, though!

The Venetian walls – initially built in the Middle Ages then rebuilt in the 16th century, they surround Nicosia and are very well preserved. They also contain eleven bastions and three gates.

"North Nicosia" Cyprus "Kyrenia Gate"
Kyrenia Gate in North Nicosia

I stopped for lunch in one of the local kebab houses, where I joined lots of locals enjoying their meals sitting outside and I tasted a traditional Cypriot dish: sheftalia kebab.

Walking along the Green Line from the Armenian Church back to the Lokmaci gate, the atmosphere was a bit eerie, a lot of buildings here have been destroyed and hardly anyone walks around, while frequent signs remind you that this is still military zone and photography is not allowed. I didn’t see police around but thought it was better not to take chances and didn’t take any photos…

I really loved North Nicosia and when I crossed the border back into the Greek part, the tourist crowds and the shops of Lidras Street made this part of the capital city quite disappointing. I ended up catching the bus back to Pafos without exploring any further, also partly due to the odd bus hours and the long journey back.

Top tip if you visit Nicosia:
the Turkish part of Nicosia doesn’t belong to the cheap European roaming/mobile data plans that apply to its Greek counterpart. As soon as you cross the border, you will incur hefty charges on your smartphone, unless you switch roaming and data off. I forgot to do that and saw my £15 balance disappear in about an hour just by having internet switched on!