Tag Archives: travelblog

Isla Mujeres – part 2

What can you do in Isla Mujeres once you are tired of lazing around at the beach and going shopping?

A popular attraction is the Tortugranja, a turtle farm run by the Government in partnership with private funding that can be easily reached by taxi or bicycle. The centre was established to protect the sea turtles and increase their population. Accessible to visitors, in addition to the indoor and outdoor turtle pools there is also a small section with other marine life like fish, crabs, seahorses.

Not far from Tortugranja there is a beautiful hidden cove that was indicated to us by a local lady. Most tourists go instead to the beach and restaurant area by the Playa Tiburon restaurant. It is still interesting to walk around there and watch local fishermen on their boats or preparing seashells for sale. And don’t forget to try the Tikinxik, a local traditional fish dish!

I also recommend anyone should hire a bicycle and go around and explore Isla Mujeres this way.
Cycle to the island’s southern point, where you will see the ruins of a tiny Mayan temple as well as an open air art exhibition. You may also come across a few iguanas enjoying the sun along the walking path.
Wander around the streets outside the main tourist area for a more authentic feel of the place. Have a fresh conocut from a stall by the side of the street. Enjoy riding in the sea breeze.

Then return to the main town for a drink and meal in the warm evening weather.

 

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…

The people of Caye Caulker

My first impression of the people of Caye Caulker was: everyone looks Jamaican and is a rastafarian. A striking difference from mainland Mexico, from which I had arrived.

In my few days on the island I got to know a few locals, most of whom hung around the crafts market along Playa Asuncion.

There I met Coco Loco, with his Santa hat. He sells giant seashells. He refused to have a photo taken until I mentioned that I could put the photo online and make him famous. At that point his attitude changed and after eagerly asking “Are you going to put me on YouTube?”, Coco Loco was more than happy to pose. So here’s to you, man: it’s not YouTube but only my humble blog, yet you are now on the internet!

Then there were Debra and Rootsman. They live in the north island and sail to the south island everyday (10 minutes or so) to set up their stall at the crafts market. Debra makes jewellery out of shells, seeds and motherpearl. She explained to me her choice of material and added that most pieces she makes are unique, all different from one another. Rootsman handpaints t-shirts. I had a long chat with them about their crafts as well as Caye Caulker. They expressed their fears about the island becoming increasingly touristy and heading towards what nearby San Pedro has become. It will be very sad if/when it happens.

There was a guy from a stall advertising diving/snorkelling who had spotted me because of my camera and my photography activity around the market, and had therefore nicknamed me “the photographer”. He’d call me everytime I walked past so I’d always greet him in return.

belizephotogallery_064Another artist asked me to have his photo taken, then complained that he looked like his brother!

As a woman you also get a lot of unsolicited  attention from the local guys. As they walk past you they will greet you with “Hello beautiful”, “Hi baby, come over here” and so on. After a couple of days on the island, most of these guys will know you and remember you, they will greet you by name when you bump into them. Because you will, and many times: Caye Caulker village is very small. It can be annoying or fun, depending on your mood. I chatted to a few because I wanted to hear stories about Caye Caulker but always walked away quickly if they became annoying.

One last interesting fact is that there is a high presence of Chinese/Asian people on the island: they run all convenience stores and cheap supermarkets in Caye Caulker village. Quite unexpected for me to be honest!

I didn’t take as many photos of people as I would have liked, for various reasons, including the fact that many refused. Here’s some more random shots though:

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!

Discovering Bacalar town

The name “Bacalar” most likely derives from the Mayan b’ak halal, which means “surrounded by reeds”. The town was named a “Pueblo Magico” in 2006 because of the magical experience it offers thanks to its natural beauty and historical relevance.

So when you are tired of trying outdoor activities, go for a walk around town! The highlights are the main square and the Fuerte de San Felipe Bacalar (the fort), which was completed in 1729 and is open to visitors. But don’t miss exploring the streets, with their shops, restaurants and food stalls. The town comes alive at night, when most of the eateries start serving food.

A 10-min walk from the centre is the municipal market. If you’ve been following me for some time you’ll know how much I love markets! I love the vibe, the colours, the people, the interactions that develop in what is often a loud and chaotic environment. The market and the little grocery stores in Bacalar were quieter than I expected. But the colours and the people didn’t disappoint.

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!

In transit through a US airport

So you thought that being in transit through an airport in the United States wouldn’t involve immigration checks. How wrong you were, my dear friend.

And how wrong I was too. It was only one week before travelling via the USA that I realised I would need an ESTA (Electronic System for Travel Authorization). Even though I would be on US ground only for two hours, and never leaving the airport. I would be “in transit”.

An ESTA is granted upon application to citizens of countries that are part of the Visa Waiver Program, there is also a payment of US$14 fee. You must have been granted an ESTA before you start your trip and the official website to use is https://esta.cbp.dhs.gov. An ESTA is usually granted within hours, at the most, but leaving it to the last minute is never a good idea. Also steer away from any third-party websites that offer to assist with your application: they charge extortionate fees and it is unclear what they do with all confidential data collected!

As you check-in and drop your bag at departure, you will be asked about your ESTA approval. It is a good idea to keep a screenshot of your approval number on your smartphone.

Once you land at your transit airport in the USA, you have to use self-service machines to scan your passport and provide your fingerprints. The machine then spits out a slip that you will show to the immigration officers. If you have the “right” slip, you will be directed to the way out, i.e. the baggage claim area. If instead your slip has a big “X” in the middle – like it happened to me – making you feel like you are about to be refused permission to remain on US ground, you get directed to the immigration desks where your passport will be re-scanned and all your fingerprints will be taken again. Any complicated immigration issues will be assessed on an individual basis by the officers.

And yes, you still get an entry stamp on your passport!

wp-1483449527212

Finally you reach the baggage claim area, most likely confused as to what you are supposed to do (“didn’t my luggage get checked in all the way to my final destination?” will pop up in your mind), where you see a sign for Connecting Flights in the distance.

It all seems a bit over the top for a transit through an airport in a country where you will not stay. But I guess these days it’s better to be safe than sorry.

One final comment: having transited through both Miami and Dallas-FortWorth airports I can only support the comments from my American friends that immigration at Miami airport is the worst in the country!

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!