Sunday, September 14, 2014

Mexico travel diaries

The Cathedral in Mexico City
Mexico had been on my travel list for a long time, but I finally got to planning my trip about a couple of months back. I wanted to somehow combine a day or two in Mexico City along with the Mayan ruins on the east coast, and I found a nice deal on AeroMexico using Google flights (If you haven't tried this yet, give it a shot. You might be surprised how they mix and match air
lines to give you the cheapest fare)
Palacio nacional
The Mexico City airport immigration lady spoke only Spanish, so this was going to be the first test of my Spanish speaking skills. I did talk with a couple of the Mexicans on the plane with me, and they were impressed by my Spanish, but this environment was different. The conversation went something like this.
Disclaimer: The exact Spanish sentences may not be correct grammatically, but this what I could remember/catch.

Immigration lady: Es su primera vez in México? (Is this your first time in Mexico?)
Me: Si (Yes)
Immigration lady: Estas solo? (Are you travelling alone?)
Me: Si (Yes)
Immigration lady: Qué hace en los Estados Unidos? (What do you do in the United States?)
Me: Trabjo como ingeniero del software (I work as a Software Engineer)
Immigration lady: Qué parte de México se quedará? (What part of Mexico will you be staying?)
Me: Primera Ciudad de Mexico para un dia despues Playa del carmen para cuatro dias. (First Mexico city for a day and then Playa del carmen for 4 days.)
Immigration lady (Handing over the passport and an immigration document):
 Recuerde devolver este cuando se vaya y ten cuidado (Remember to return this when you go back and be careful)
Me: Gracias! (Thanks!)

Me in Mexico City
Day 1 (Mexico City, DF, Mexico) : After exiting the airport I took a cab through one of the pre-paid taxi stands there (there might be cheaper options but I didn't want to waste the limited time I had to explore). I exchanged the USD at the airport, although, in hindsight, I think I'd have gotten a better rate at the ATMs.
Museo de bella artes
The taxi dropped me about 2 blocks from the hotel, it cost about 305 Pesos (~22 USD). I had booked a hotel close to Zocalo which is their main square. Think of it like the heart of the city; thousands of people throng this square during weekends and special occasions. It's the thriving spot of culture, politics, and all major events happening in the city.
You'll find street performers, road side vendors, bargain gift shops, among others, at Zocalo. It also has the most important historic and architectural monuments of the city: The Metropolitan cathedral, National Palace (Palacio Nacional), Mueseo de bella arte, Palacio Postal, Angel de la independencia (the latter three are walk able distances away).

The city has about 22 million people, thus making it the most populous city in the Americas. You literally can't recognize the streets during day time because all of them are swamped with people! On the bright side, all of the sights are within walking distances of each other.
With JD at Restaurante Casa de Madero

I spent most the day exploring the monuments and went back to the hotel to rest for a bit.

Evening, my Kansas City Spanish meetup friend JD, who was also visiting Mexico City, messaged me if I wanted meet and we decided to meet in front of the cathedral, as both of us were staying in it's proximity. He was
touring the city as well and was planning to participate in the Mexico city marathon the next day. We walked around for a bit, exploring how the city transforms by the night and had dinner at one of the restaurants he suggested - La Casa de Madero near centro.

Day 2 (Playa del Carmen): I had booked the taxi through the hotel the night and the driver picked me up a 8:45 sharp for my 11:30 am flight to Cancun. The return taxi booked thorugh the hotel cost me only 180 pesos (~14 USD) I ended getting there pretty early, around 9:10 ish,  as there was virtually no traffic getting there, being a lazy Sunday morning, as the driver said.
Flight to Cancun
After landing, I took the ADO bus to PDC from the Cancun airport (146 Pesos one way). They are located within a secure area on your left as you step out of the airport at Cancun. You can pay at the bus and they accept both cash (pesos only) and credit cards. The bus itself was very comfortable and air conditioned. The ride takes about an hour and 15 minutes, and fortunately my hotel was walking distance from the bus station at Playa. I checked into my hotel and spent the remainder of the day just strolling near the beach and exploring the small town.

Day 3 (Tulum & Cozumal): I had booked a tour to Tulum through one of the local operators in Cancun as they do a collective tour to the ruins in the morning. The tour started with the bus picking us up close to the meeting near Señor frogs and driving us to the ruins. We changed the buses midway as one bus headed to Chichen itza towards the west. We landed at the ruins and had about 2 hours of free time to explore.
Tulum ruins
Tulum is the only coastal Mayan city, thus making a unique. The ruins themselves aren't that impressive, but the setting for the ruins along the turquoise ocean makes it an impressive sight.
After the tour I came back and just relaxed by the beach in Playa. I spent about an hour talking to a random old lady, who was also waiting for the ferry, in Spanish as she regaled me with tales about living on the Cozumal island and commuting back and forth for work to Playa del Carmen. Evening around 5, I took the ferry to Cozumal island, which is about an hour away. I had dinner at Restaurant Palmeras. I felt it was slightly on the expensive side compared to Playa and other places near by, but I was warned of that by the old lady. I came back by the 7:00 ferry as I didn't want to wait until it was completely dark to return. The last ferry leaves the island for Playa at 9:00 pm.

Day 4 (Rio Secreto & Akumal beach): I read about Rio Secreto on Tripadvisor and it almost immediately grabbed by attention. Just 10 min by "taxi collectivo" from Playa del Carmen, this hidden gem will blow your mind. The underground water reserve has thousands of dramatic stalactites and stalagmites. It’s like stepping back in time to witness something mysterious and truly spectacular. Before the tour began, there was an introductory video about the story behind the formations and the caves. We were then taken into a van and driven for about 20 minutes deep into the woods. They gave all the gear required, suit, floats, water boots, the works.
We were asked to take a shower before so as to not 'pollute' the river and went through a Mayan cleansing ritual by a native Mayan, which although sounds tacky, was quite interesting. We then stepped into the caves.
Akumal Beach
Tips: You don't need to know swimming to get in there, some of the water is as much as 15 feet deep but you can float using the life vests given.
The entrance fee was $67.15 and it has to be booked at least 5 days in advance to guarantee a slot. They also charged an additional $60 for the photos, which I felt was expensive, but there's no camera (even if it's waterproof) allowed inside the caves.
Also, try using 'Taxi Collectivos', these are shared hop-on/hop-off taxis located between 15th and 20th St at PDC. They are the cheapest and quickest mode of transportation south of Playa.
After the tour I went and relaxed at Akumal beach, which is about 30 min south by 'taxi collectivo' from Rio Secreto.

Day 5 (Chichen Itza, Yucatan): I had booked a tour to this 'Wonder of the world' through Yukatreks, as public transportation is sparse and I wanted somone knowledgeable to understand the hisory behind Chichen Itza. The van picked me up promptly at 7:20 am
Chichen Itza
Cenote X'keken
as decided and drove us to the Chichen itza while picking some the others on the way. The good this was this tour was limited to just 9 of us. The main pyramid at Chichen itza is pretty big, and depending on the time of the day, it can get upwards o
f 40'C in the middle of the ruins. So I'd suggest reaching there as early as you can. The site has a variety of ruins of different
architectural style as it was apparently the most diverse of all the Maya cities. There is also a big cenote near the ruins. The tours at the ruins lasted about 3 hours and we then headed to Cenote X'keken in Dzitnup, Yucatan to cool off. Some of these cenotes are really impressive and they were worshiped by the Mayans as it was their source of clean water. After the cenote, we headed ov
The Church at Vallolodid
er for lunch to Hacienda Selva Maya. They had served up a buffet of Mexican food for us and I don't know if it was the hunger or something else, but that was hands down the best Mexican food I've ever had. Post lunch, we headed over for our final stop, before the drive back, to Vallolodid, this Spanish colonial town was first set up in the 17th century . This historical city has the oldest church in the Yucatan, colonial Spanish architecture, family-run shops and wonderful crafts by local artisans.

To sum up the whole tour, I'm glad I could combine Mexico City along with the East coast, as I got to experience the best of Mexico! The country has a bit for everyone's interests and I'm sure a trip there would satisfy anyone's requirement for a great vacation.

What businesses did I use?
Airlines: Delta (US-Mexico flights) and Aeromexico (MEX-CUN flight only)
Hotels : Casa San lledefonso and Hotel Colorado
Tours: Cancun Best discounts, Rio Secreto and Yukatreks

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Trinidad and Tobago

Me in Tobago
I had never been to the Caribbean before and I was able to use my United Airlines' miles for a round trip to T&T for 35,000 miles + $66. Also, Indian citizens don't need a VISA to visit some of the Caribbean countries like T&T, Jamaica, Turks and Caicos islands etc., so that was another motivating factor.

Near Castara Bay, Tobago 
I landed in Port of Spain at around 7:45 in the evening after I'd started at 6 am from Kansas City. The flight from Houston to PoS is about 6.5 hours and I had to catch the flight to Tobago the same day from the PoS airport at 10:45 pm. The immigration was a breeze as there was virtually no waiting time. If I'd known it before I'd have probably booked an earlier flight for Tobago, but the average wait time is from 30 minutes to up to an hour sometimes, so I didn't want to take any chances. 
At fort James in Tobago
The questions asked during immigration were: 1) Is this your first time to T&T? 
2) Do you know anyone here? 3) Are you travelling alone? 4) What do you do in the US? 5) Can you show me your return flight ticket? 6) How much cash do you have, and do you have credit cards?

Following which, the officer stamped the Passport for a stay of up to 3 months. After clearing the immigration, I had to head outside the airport and re-clear the security at domestic flight terminal to Tobago, although they are both technically within the same airport.
View from Glasgow bar
A couple of the previous flights were delayed and hence, my flight took off late. The flight landed in Tobago at a little after 11:30 pm and I was picked up, outside the airport, by the owner of the guesthouse I was staying in. By the time I got to the guesthouse I was really tired from the almost day long travel and hit the bed almost immediately.

Day 1: The following day I had booked a tour with Wayne, one of the local tours guide and he promptly picked me up at 9:10 am at the guesthouse. There were 5 of us in his van, so we all got personalized attention. We first headed to fort James for some awesome views. The British army maintained a post here, during their rule.
We then headed over to Castara bay for a swim in the ocean. The beach was surprisingly empty and there were only the five of us there. We then headed over for lunch to a place called 'Glasgow bar', the restaurant has some of the most beautiful views on the island. We relaxed on the upper deck eating Caribbean chicken and rice while swapping travel stories with each other.
Argyle Falls
Pigeon Point beach
Next, we headed to the Argyle waterfalls. The falls are actually quite small
but about 18 feet deep. The walk to the falls is though a jungle and you may happen to spot a woodpecker or two, on the way. The day ended with another swim at King Bay beach and a final stop at Fort King George which was built by the British during the 18th century.

Day 2: I had slept early after a tiring day exploring Tobago with Wayne, our tour guide. The next day I got up and headed to Pigeon point beach, which was walking distance from where I was staying. The beach is well maintained. There is a $20TT (~$3US) entry fee.
Afternoon, I caught the flight to Port of Spain, as I saw India lose the World T20 final to Sri Lanka at the Tobago international airport. About 3 flights including mine were cancelled, and hence we had a Boeing 777 for the 20 minutes flight.
Richard's Bake and shark
The guesthouse owner's son picked me up at the airport and drove me back to his place.

Day 3: The next day I headed to Maracas Bay beach and the plan was to relax the whole day by the beach; something I can't remember the last time I'd done. I used the "maxi taxi" system to get to the beach. The taxis are a hop-on/hop-off kind of a deal. They pickup people from different places and drop them off at the city-center in Port of Spain. They cost anywhere between $3-$10TT (~$1-2US) and are the cheapest mode of transport within and near by the city. The locals are really helpful, and guide you to perfection. Also, it is the best way to experience the local culture and interact with them.
Asa Wright nature reserve
I had to get two taxis; one from the guesthouse to the city center and another from there to the beach. For lunch, I had baked (fried) shark and king fish at Richard's bake and shark. It really is a must have with all the customization options (chutneys., mustard, salads etc.) they have there. Also, in PoS, you have to try the "rotis", which is basically chicken curry inside Indian flat bread and doubles(chick peas in roti).
I used the same taxi system to get back to the guesthouse in the evening.

At the Queen's park oval
Day 4: The night beforeI requested Tony, the guesthouse owner, to arrange a taxi for me to the Asa Wright Nature reserve, as there're no "maxis" available to get here. The driver, Manuel, picked me up at 8:30 am and drove me to the park, for the tour which was beginning at 10:30 am. The park is filled with exotic birds and plants. The tour lasted about an hour and half but I didn't have the lunch at the park, as I didn't want to keep my driver waiting for too long.
Though, he was in a very generous and fun mood and offered me a "round about" route for getting back, as we went riding along the Northern coastline. We stopped at Chupara and Las Cuevas beaches on the way. He was a good conversationalist, and knew a lot about the local culture and Caribbean politics. Last stop, we headed over to the Queen's park oval stadium to just relax in the member's lounge.

This brought to an end a wonderful four days spent in the Caribbean twin island republic.  I hope to return some day again, but until then I have the memories of one of my best trips till now!

What businesses did I use?
Hotel in Tobago : Candles in the wind
Hotel in Trinidad : Tony's guesthouse
Tour in Tobago: Wayne Kennedy
Airlines: United & Caribbean ($48 Round-trip from PoS to Tobago)

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

9 days in England and Ireland

Westminister Abbey and Tower of big Ben
I traveled to Great Britain and Republic of Ireland for a short trip, in November last year. The tickets are cheap that time of the year and I had some pending vacation I wanted to use. I was visiting my cousin who lives in London and she had helped me get the VISA for the UK. The good news is that the UK VISA is accepted in the Republic of Ireland, for citizens of some countries like the BRIC ones, so you don't need a separate VISA for Southern Ireland.
In England, I spent about 4 days exploring central London, with one of my cousins, and did a day trip, by myself, to Stonehenge and Bath.
St Paul's Cathedral
Regent Street in Central London
Day 1 in London: As I was hungry after an overnight flight, we first headed to the Borough market at Southwark Street in Central London and had some nice street food. You can get some tasty and cheap English/Indian/Chinese/Thai food here. The average dish will cost you about £5. Next, we walked over to St. Paul’s Cathedral, built after the Great Fire of London in 1666. You really can't take a wrong angled picture of this masterpiece. Next, we headed to the streets in central London and did a stroll through Big Ben and the Houses of Parliament. After taking some photos we then crossed over Parliament Square to Westminster Abbey for some more photographs.

At Trafalgar square
Changing of the guards 
Day 2 in London: We started off with one of the must-see sights, in London – the Changing of the Guard ceremony outside Buckingham Palace. The ceremony starts at 11.15 AM but I'd recommend getting there by half past 10 for a decent spot (you will need to get there by 10 AM if you want a spot right up against the gates). We then walked to Trafalgar square which is supposed to be the center of central London. We finished the day with a walk through the Camden market, a 6 mile stroll through Hyde park and a double decker bus ride back home.

Day 3 (Bath and Stonehenge): I had booked a day tour to Bath and Stonehenge with The English bus. The tour started with the bus picking us up at outside the Kennington Underground Station at 8:45 am. We were then driven to Stonehenge with Chris, our driver and tour guide, giving us bits and pieces of information about London and Stonehenge along the way. We had an hour and half at Stonehenge (Entry fee is £8), and that's plenty of time for photographs from all angles. Next, we headed to Bath for lunch and were dropped off at the Bath Abbey for exploring the town.
After this we were driven back to Central London, by the time we reached it was 8:00 pm.
Tip: Try the pasty at "Pasty Presto" near Bath Abbey.

British Museum 
Me at Lord's
Day 4 in London: I'm a big cricket fan and if you're cricket fan in England, there's one place you just cannot miss. The Mecca for all cricket lovers; The Lords Stadium. I went in for the tour at 11 am (They have hourly tours in the morning and afternoon from 10 am - 2 pm). The tour started with the Long hall, proceeded to the players' dressing rooms & balconies, and ended in the media center. The entry fee and tour is £18/person.

The British museum was next on the list, the museum houses a vast collection of world art and artifacts and is free entry. You can easily spend anywhere between an hour to a whole day here, depending on your interest level.

Museum of natural history
Tower bridge
Day 5 in London: This day as pretty relaxed, as I wanted to prepare for the Ireland trip, which was starting with my flight to Dublin next day. We started off my visiting the Museum of Natural on Cromwell road. The wait in the line was about 2 hours to get in, but it was worth the wait. The entry is free here. The museum exhibits a vast range of specimens from various segments of natural history. We need the day with some photos taken at the magnificent Tower bridge.
I then traveled to Dublin, Ireland and did a 3 day tours of southern Ireland, with Paddywagon tours, to the cities of Galway, Kerry in Cork country, Blarney castle and then back to Dublin.
Four Courts in Dublin
Day 6 (Dublin): I arrived in Dublin via Aer Lingus from London Gatwick. The flight takes about an hour and you have to pay for everything on-board like water, light snacks etc., but otherwise the flight was okay. After landing I went through the immigration at Dublin airport and it was very smooth, no questions asked. Outside the airport, I waited at a near by church, which is a Paddywagon bus pick-up/drop-off point to/from their office. Their bus picked me up at 4:00 pm and dropped me off at my hotel, opposite their office, in Dublin.
Scenic Ireland

Day 7 (Galway): We departed from Dublin, the next morning, and made our way towards the west of Ireland. En route we enjoyed the great scenery of the midlands! We enjoy a great tour of Connemara - the most beautiful wilderness in all of Europe. We experienced the dramatic mountain scenery that has been the setting for some Hollywood blockbuster movies. We made our way along the Connemara coastline, along the shore of Galway Bay, making our way towards Galway City. In the city we found a nice pub down by Galway bay, to enjoy some traditional Irish music.

Day 8 (Cliffs of Moher): Next day, the bus drove along the wild Atlantic Ocean by our side, as we cruised down the west coast.
We saw beautiful, rocky beaches along the longest coastal touring route in the world. We stopped at the cliffs of Moher, which was a bit of a disappointment because of the weather. We could not actually get to the cliffs, cause of the hurricane-like winds that were there blowing that day. It was a different experience, though, as we made our way from the visitor's center to the bus, holding tight onto each other, so as to not be blown away by the wind!
The Blarney house
Day 9 (Blarney): We went from Kerry to Dublin back this morning via the Blarney Castle. We explored the castle for about a couple of hours, before returning to Dublin's fair city for our farewells and a quiet dinner at the Church bar in the night.

1) Exchange some € and £  for trains/taxis at the local banks in your home country, but there are plenty of official/unofficial money exchange places all over London and Dublin, that offer a much better exchange rate.
2) Get a London underground zone 1 and 2 all day pass (£8) every day that you travel within the city. It's the most economical way to explore the city and is valid even on the buses.
3) In Dublin, try to book a tour which has airport drop-off/pick-up service. It'll save you €s for bus/taxi.

What businesses did I use?
Tour to bath and Stonehenge : The English Bus
Tour of Southern Ireland : Paddywagon tours
Hotel in Dublin: The Townhouse of Dublin
Airlines : United (KC to London & Dublin to KC)  & Aer Lingus (London to Dublin one-way flight)

Thursday, January 2, 2014

My 5 day Guatemalan adventure

I recently did a week long trip to Guatemala during Christmas. I chose the country for two reasons, firstly, I was interested in visiting the Mayan ruins in Tikal and secondly, I wanted to practice the Spanish I've been learning for the last 5 months, mas o menos.

I started off my tour with Tikal, which is the northern part of the country. I flew directly from Guatemala City to Flores, via Tag airlines, and then the hotel (Tikal Inn) shuttle picked me up, to take me to Tikal. The Tag airlines flight was actually quite comfortable and better than some of the domestic airlines in the US. They even gave a small snack box, which was a pleasant surprise.
It was after sunset and pretty dark, I was the only one in the shuttle, the driver was a bit rude and only spoke Spanish, so I was a bit nervous. However, eventually we got to the hotel around 8:30 p.m and I felt relaxed as there were a lot of people dining and celebrating Christmas eve there. I joined them in their celebrations and they were all very welcoming. Most of them were from the US and Canada. Some of them were also doing the same sunrise tour with me and it was good to know these people, as I was going to be spending 4-5 hours with them in the morning.

Temple I in Tikal
Day 1 (Tikal): The sunrise tour started with Roxy at 4:30 am in the morning and we hiked to the top of Temple IV to watch the sunrise. Roxy told many facts and stories about the Mayan temples, their construction, purpose etc. on the hike up. We watched the sunrise from the top, which was not the best because of clouds, but we did get a few good pictures when it got bright. The tour then continued to various parts of the park as we moved from temple to temple stopping in significant places in between.
Sunrise from the top of Temple IV in Tikal
The tour ended around 10:30 am and went headed back to the hotel to get some rest, as we wanted to come back to experience the sunset. The sunset was not as spectacular as the sunrise but it was still worth going back. Tip: The park fees are Q150/day and they will be valid the whole day and the next, when you purchase it after 3:30 pm. Though, there is an additional Q100 charge to enter the park before 6 am.

View at Parque Central
Day 2 (Antigua): I left for Antigua from Tikal, early morning via Tag airlines. I checked into my hostel and went on the next tour which was a short city tour with our guide Roberto. Roberto is like the unofficial mayor of Antigua, he knew everyone and everything in the city. We went through this historical city focusing on its architecture, history, restoration and cultural trends. We explored the City hall Palace, Palace of the captain general, cathedral with its majestic ruins, jades museum focusing on the Maya spirituality and completed the tour at the paseo de los museos inside Casa Santo Domingo.
Volcano Pacaya in the background
Day 3 (Coffee plantation & Volcán Pacaya): I started off with the coffee plantation tour in the morning at Filadelfia’s Farm. I was picked up from in front of the San Jose ruins, and driven in an open truck to the Coffee plantations. Once we got there, we learnt about the Coffee plantations process, and what goes into the making of an awesome Guatemalan cup of coffee. The tour ending with a coffee drink at the restaurant in the plantations.
Various stages of the coffee beans
 I did a second tour to the Volcano Pacaya that started at 2:00. It was by far the most adventurous and physically demanding tour during my trip. We did a steep climb to the top of the Volcano and enjoyed the awesome views from the top, including the sunset.
Tip: Check the weather before you do the Volcano climb, else, it may not be worth all the hassle.
Lake Atilan
Day 4 (Lake Atilan): The day started with the shuttle picking me up at my hotel at 5:30 am for the ride to Lake Atitlan. The drive is very scenic, but it's difficult to remain awake when you've had to wake up at 4:30 am. We reached Panajachel and did a boat ride to three of the villages around the Lake viz. San Juan, San pedro and Santiago Atitlan. We did a mini tour of each of the villages and had coffee and lunch breaks in two them. We got to mingle with the locals and learnt about the what goes into the making of the Guatemalan handicrafts. The day ended at 8:00 pm with the shuttle back to Antigua.
Tourists from Japan and Austria
Day 5 (Chichicastanango market): This was the least interesting of all the tours, but still better sitting in the hotel. We drove to the Chichicastanango market, early morning, which is about a couple of hours to the west of Antigua and explored the market for about 3 hours before heading back at about 2:00 pm. The market is very crowed and be prepared to be followed and nagged by various vendors into buying their stuff. Also, keep your wallets safe.
Chaos at Chichicastanango market

Overall, this is by far the most adventurous trip I've done till now. I met people from all over the world, spoke Spanish (as much as possible) and did things that I'd laughed off, had someone told me I was going to be doing them, a year or so back.

Tips: 1) Exchange your USDs at Banco Banrural at Guatemala City Airport, which is on the 3rd floor of the departures' building, they had the best exchange rate. However, USDs are also widely accepted and preferred, and Euro and USD are the only currencies convertible to Quetzales.
With tourists from Mexico
With a local Guatemalan woman
2) Talk as much Spanish as you can, the locals appreciate it and will help you in every way possible.
3) Don't flash your camera/money or anything valuable in public.
Me on the ferry at Lake Atilan
4) Consider taking Hep A and Typhoid shots, and stick to bottled water or agua embotellado in Spanish.
5) Leave your passport at the hotel and carry a photocopy of front/back pages and two passport size photos with you, you will need this in case the passport is lost/stolen.
6) Enjoy Guatemala, the country has a lot of offer!
What businesses did I use?
Hotel in Tikal: Tikal Inn
Tour in Tikal : Roxy Ortiz (You have to email her atleast 2-3 months in advance, she's usually pretty booked and answers emails only once a week or so.)
Tour in/around Antigua: Rainbow Tours
Hotel in Antigua: Hotel Antigua
Airlines : United (They bumped me up to business class while coming back!) & Tag (for Tikal-Guatemala City round trip)