Mayan Mexico

Mayan Mexico

I’ve never been someone who quivers at the thought of rappelling down a mountain, or climbing up to the top of a tower and looking down – never… until I went to Mexico.

Mexico has always had my interest. Even as a young girl, Mexican food was always my favourite (well, what I knew of Mexican food anyway!). I just never really had the opportunity to go, until B and I wanted to take a trip with two of our close friends. After running through our list of options, we all agree on Mexico, just outside of Playa del Carmen. My first time doing an all-inclusive!

When we arrive, we pack into a hotel shuttle which takes us to our resort. It’s close to a two-hour drive from the airport and it’s dark by the time we reach our resort in Xpu Ha. Our resort is made up of a series of cabins, and has a wildlife “sanctuary” intertwined throughout the resort. It’s a resort that has seen better days (which is why I’m choosing not to name it), but the staff are friendly and after the first pool day, we’ve made friends with the entertainment staff who quickly know us by first name and call on us to join them in dancing, pool games, and trivia. We’re there for a full week and to keep busy, we devise a week of pool/beach days at the resort with bi-daily trips outside of the resort.

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Our first day trip is to Playa del Carmen. The resort has a “free” shuttle to the city, with an hour jewelry “tour” built in. I use the word “tour” lightly because really, all it is is a large room with jewelry to buy. While we don’t buy anything, we do get a free souvenir with our name written out with traditional Mayan script which is pretty cool.

Playa del Carmen is a resort city, a package tour paradise. A blend of night clubs, souvenir shops, and tour operators are all within walking distance. There’s a disbelief amongst Canadians and Americans that Mexico is dangerous – but I felt perfectly safe in this little piece of paradise.

After some Chicken tacos and some tequila tasting and education, we wander the streets before heading back to the resort for dinner. I’m not used to working against such a timeline and I know I’ll be back to Playa before we leave.

Taco

Day three is a resort day and we split our time between hanging out with the animals and relaxing by the pool. While relaxing by a pool and having drinks served to you at a whim is nice, I’m craving a bit of adventure. I want to climb Coba, and go Zip-lining – thankfully, there is an excursion for that! In addition to three zip-lines, we can kayak, rappel down a mountain, AND swim in a cenote – what more could a girl want? On day four, we leave our resort by 8 a.m. and we’re on our way to our adventure.

Our tour is organized by Alltournatives and they’re great! After picking us up, we make our way to our first adventure stop – kayaking, cenote, and zip-lining. While the kayaking was a bit of a joke (we’re pretty avid kayakers), it was a nice start to the day. After the short journey, we take a short trek towards an enclosed cenote for a swim. If you haven’t swam in a cenote, or are unaware of what it is, it’s basically a natural sinkhole which creates secret swimming holes. The Yucatan Peninsula is famous for them and are sacred spots in the Mayan culture. Because of this, after our swim (which was incredibly refreshing), we attend a Mayan prayer ceremony. After a blessing from a Mayan elder, we continue on to zip-line #1.

I wish I had photos but the tour does not allow for cameras during the adventure portions of the excursion – which actually makes a lot of sense – Go Pros are permitted but I didn’t have one just yet. Moving on to our next adventure, we’re transported to a location just a few kilometers down the road. We’re led to a second zip-line which then brings us to our rappel down the mountain. The Zip-line was a blast so I volunteered myself and B to rappel first. Having done rock climbing multiple times, I thought this was going to be a breeze. I get all geared up and set myself up to back towards the edge and just like that, I freeze. I freeze hard. I can’t move. My palms are sweaty and I can’t move. Despite the staff urging me back, I freeze and demand to be removed from the ledge. And just like that, I don’t rappel down the mountain.

Still shaking from the rappelling incident, we head to lunch (which is provided as part of the tour). Lunch is buffet style and made of traditional Mayan dishes – all of which are fantastic. After a little shopping, we head to our final destination: Coba. Like Chichen Itza, Coba is an ancient Mayan city where visitors can explore the historic ruins. Unlike other ruins in the area, you can still climb the Pyramid in Coba (for now) and that honestly was one of my biggest draws to visit. You can explore the park by bicycle, on foot, or hire a rickshaw to take you around. We opt for the cheapest option – on foot and it’s hot. By the time we arrive to the foot of the Nohoch Mul Pyramid, I’m over heating and burnt to a crisp, but keen to do the climb anyway.

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Because the steps are so small and fragile, you pretty much need to climb with your hands and feet to ensure you don’t lose your balance. To ensure that you don’t get in people’s way, you climb up on the right, and shimmy down on the left. Halfway up, I have a great idea to stop… bad idea. I take one look back and freeze. Until this point, I HAVE NO FEAR OF HEIGHTS. It’s like something snap in me and my knees go weak, and my palms are sweaty and I can’t move. I urge B to continue on and after some debate, he agrees. As people make their way past me, I realize that I can’t even move to get down… and I start to panic. Tears are rolling down my cheeks, my heart is pounding, and I panic. After a random stranger stops to ask me if I’m okay, I swallow my pride and gather enough courage to scuttle my butt over to the left and make my way down to the bottom. I’ve never felt so happy to be on solid ground.

Day five comes quickly and I’ve had my fill of unlimited drinks, pool time, and resort life. By the end of the day, B and I have a breakout plan to adventure without organization. On day six, we have breakfast with our friends and make our way to the entrance for the resort. We ask the guards to flag us down a collectivo – local bus – that will take us into Playa del Carmen. We’re lucky and are picked up on our first attempt! Cramped into the little van with a handful of locals, we make our way to the city. Upon our arrival, we wander some of the streets we missed out on our first time around, looking for some lunch and figuring out our plan. After a short time, we settle on taking the ferry to Cozumel, but first, a quesadilla!

The ferry is just under an hour and it’s simple to get tickets. You can purchase ticket right at the dock and line up from there. We sat on the top deck near the back and before we knew it, we were in a different part of Mexico. The ferry drops you off in San Miguel and you’re in the centre of town. The island is very small and accessible, and strangely different from the mainland with a slightly more Spanish flare to the architecture. After exploring the main town for an hour, we decide to rent scooters and explore even more of the island. There are multiple vendors so renting a scooter is easy, and affordable. After we settle on a shop, we make our way to the country side. Getting outside of the city centre was the best part of our trip. The island is easy riding, with so many opportunities to stop and enjoy the views. Untouched beaches, the open road, and warm breezes make me wish we had spent our entire trip on this little island. By the time we return the bikes, we miss our ferry and have to wait for the next one – putting us back in Playa after dark.

Cosumel

We wander the streets, making our way to the collectivo stand to head back to the resort for one last dinner. The drivers stand outside of their van calling out the destination names. With my limited Spanish, I find the collectivo heading towards our resort and the driver urges us to sit up front. He knows the hotel well and drops us along the side of the road directly across from our resort’s entrance.

Little did I know that just seven days in Mexico would teach me such lessons about myself – mainly that I am afraid of heights and not all resort experiences are created equally.

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A Day in Champagne

A Day in Champagne

It’s 6 a.m. and I’m on vacation. As I wander around my hotel room half asleep, rushing to get ready, I curse at myself for waking up so early, but it’s a sacrifice I’m willing to make. It’s all so I can get the early, and slightly cheaper, train to Reims. From Gare de Paris-Est, Reims is just under an hour. This quick commute puts us in the land of Champagne in time for breakfast.

8 a.m. is a bit too early to start drinking in my books so when we arrived in Reims we made a quick stop at the local tourist office for a map and we head towards the city’s centre. For a cheap breakfast, we stopp at a Paul bakery where our breakfast consists of half a baguette with butter and jam, cafe au lait, and orange juice, of course! By the time we are finished eating, it’s 9:30… still too early for Champagne. The streets even appear to be sleepy still (mind you, it’s late fall and it’s rainy and cold), so we head towards Cathedral of Notre-Dame de ReimsSurprisingly it’s just around the corner and before we know it, we’re standing in all of its glory. 

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Wandering around Reims is very easy, but the big Champagne houses are a brisk 30 minute walk from the historical centre. Since our visit to Veuve Clicquot (the only house we booked a tour at) isn’t until 2 p.m., we decide to spend the rest of our morning exploring the Palace of Tau – which is conveniently located right next to the Cathedral. The Palace of Tau was home to the Archbishop of Reims and also where past kings of France resided before coronation, which happened right next door at the Cathedral. Paired with the church, it’s a UNESCO World Heritage site. 

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After wandering the halls of the grand Palace, and after trying my skills at puzzle making, it was time for lunch. At noon, it’s time for Champagne… but I have a glass of red instead. I figure I’ll get my fair share of Champagne in the afternoon and a good glass of red pairs nicely with my galette. Being vegetarian in Europe can either be easy, as in the case of France, or extremely difficult, as in the case of southern Germany. This time, my galette is topped with thin potatoes, red onion, and a delicious cream sauce. B has his with meat.

Galette

Now that lunch is over, it’s time for Champagne! We make our way on foot to Veuve Clicquot for our 2 p.m. tour. I’m honestly like a kid in a candy store as we head towards the front entrance. The entrance is as elegant as I had envisioned. The staff are extremely welcoming and seem genuinely happy to have us there. After a few quick snaps, one of the hosts lead us to the waiting room until our guide is ready. The room is completely branded, right down to the pillows and even a foosball table. A few others join us from around the world and before we know it, our guide is with us.

The Veuve Clicquot tour is quite extensive and happens mostly in the cellars below the house. As we make our way through the cellars, the guide tells us the story of Madame Clicquot, who became a widow at the young age of 27, and the history of the house that bears her name (Widow Clicquot). The house holds a lot of history, including its role during the world wars where people lived in the cellars as fighting happened above ground. Symbols from the war can still be seen on the rock walls in the form of painted red crosses (symbol for where the hospital could be located), and craved markings. Aside from the history, the tour walks you through the production of the infamous champagne produced at the house. All bottles are carefully categorized as not to lose sight of them, and to ensure the various vintages are kept together for organization.

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The tour ends back above ground for a tasting – clearly, the best part! Our tour ended with a tasting for the yellow label, the most common bottle they have. Our guide shows us how to open Champagne correctly (after 6 twists of the wire, and a controlled cork removal) so to not cause premature de-carbonation. After a quick cheers, we enjoy our glass and plan our next house visit – Pommery.

IMG_2527Pommery house is just around the round-about, and a quick walk from Veuve Clicquot. While we didn’t book a tour here, it was very easy to get to. Entrance is a bit steep without a tour, but you get access to a tasting and their large tasting room where you’ll find an assortment of large art exhibits and information on the Pommery house. You can also sit in on a video that talks about the history of the house. Before this visit, I had never tried Pommery Champagne and I was pleasantly surprised. The staff poured us a glass of their Brut Royal which exceeded my expectations. After looking around at some art, and finishing our glass of Brut, we continued on our merry way.

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As we made our way back to the city centre, we stopped at Tattinger. We didn’t end up doing a tasting, they don’t actually do that, and their final tour had already started, so we continued on. Back in town, we sat down for some cheese and another glass of wine before heading back to Paris.

While it was just for a day, Reims was jammed packed with activity. For such a compact city, it offers a lot of activity and even more history. If you’re looking for a little adventure that’s an easy escape from Paris, put Reims on your list – you won’t be disappointed.

Sorrento & Amalfi Coast, Italy

Sorrento & Amalfi Coast, Italy

It’s been a long few days. I’ve just turned 30 and since then, everything has been going downhill. I got sprayed with toilet water, I arrived to Italy without luggage, I can’t find decent clothes in Rome that fit me, and now I had to go through Naples – the armpit of Italy (in my opinion). All I wanted was a little Italian adventure to celebrate the end of my 20s… but this wasn’t what kind of adventure I had in mind.

After just two days in Rome, we head to Sorrento, on the Amalfi Coast. As we make our way through the streets of Naples, I’m struggling to see why people fall in love with this place. It’s smelly, the people are rude, the food has been overrated up until this Naples Pizzapoint, and its hot, really hot. My goal in Naples is to eat pizza – of course. As we wander the narrow streets, we stumble upon a little restaurant that appears to be packed with locals, a sure sign of quality. We head in and settle near the back. On the walls are awards and blue ribbons that symbolize just how good this pizza is. I order a Margherita pizza with a Lemon Peroni and my hopes are high. The beer is good, as is the pizza, but to be honest, I can’t tell the difference between it and the pizza at Piatto in Halifax. Oh, and on the way out the owner played a little game with the bill and claimed “the payment didn’t go through” and demanded payment in cash. Sure enough we had been double charged, which resulted in a call to the fine folks at Visa to straighten things out and report the incident.

From Naples, we board our ferry to Sorrento, which is just under an hour transit. When we disembark, we’re greeted by an abundance of taxis, buses, and men holding signs waiting to tout tourists around the twisty roads of the Amalfi Coast. We opt for a local bus, but of course, the bus we need is at the top of the hill. With my plastic bag of recently purchased clothes, we make the trek up the steep hill to the town centre. We catch the bus and head towards the campground where we’ll be calling home for the next four days. After a short bus ride, we arrive at our destination and when we check in, the hostess says, “The airline called, they have your bag.” This is the best news I’ve heard the entire trip! She continues, “But it’s a long weekend so they can’t be here until Tuesday”… the day we leave for Southern Italy. *Sigh*

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As you can tell by the way I’m telling this story, I was having a pretty shitty time in Italy.  That is, until we hit Sorrento. I never imaged the joy that staying in an Italian campground could bring me, but it was just what I needed. The cabin we rented was perfect and fully equipped with a corkscrew, pasta strainer, and an espresso pot – all of the Italian essentials. The staff were wonderful – taking on the task of continuously calling the airline and airport to let them know I wouldn’t be arriving back in Rome for another week and to hold onto my luggage (they never did get a hold of the airline – never fly Veuling… or just fly carry-on only when going to Italy). The campground also has a pool, full-service restaurant, and access to a private “beach”. Wine at the camp shop costs less than 5$ for a litre – but you get what you pay for.

Riding a scooter is probably the best way to get around the Amalfi coast, but it’s not for the faint of heart, or inexperienced. The roads are narrow and twisty with cars and buses entering into your lane as they themselves vie for space on the road. But, for those who have experience riding, it’s an exhilarating and worth-while experience. There are a few rental places to rent from, just be sure to take lots of photos of the bike before you hit the road in case they inspect the bike when you return it (recommended by the guy we rented from).

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Sorrento is largely known for two things: lemons and leather. As you walk through the narrow street of the old town, you’ll see countless gift shops with lemon-flavoured candies, lemon scented soaps, and bottles of lemoncello for purchase. Aside from the lemon-inspired goods, visitors can reap the benefits of high-quality, handmade leather goods. Before heading to Italy, I didn’t know of Sorrento’s reputation but quickly realized that I would not be leaving Sorrento without a new, hand-made, leather purse.

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From Sorrento’s twisty, scenic riding trails, to their giant lemons that produces the most amazing lemoncello, Sorrento provided the Italian experience I was looking for, and needed.

PS: I did finally get my luggage when I returned to Rome for our flight back to Canada…. but that’s another story for another time.

Bosnia & Herzegovina

Bosnia & Herzegovina

Up ahead are white dusted tipped mountains, down below are valleys, and I’m somewhere in the middle, driving along twisty mountain roads in Bosnia and Herzegovina. Although I’ve never been in this part of the world before, I find it strangely familiar. It’s as if all of the cities and all of the countries I’ve traveled before have mashed together before my eyes and I’m in a place that I’m familiar with.

As we make our way down the twisty mountain roads towards Mostar, I’m taken back to my childhood. To a time where I hated road trips. It’s likely due to the fact that as an only child in the early 90s, I grew bored with them. On any given Sunday, my grandparents (who raised me and I love dearly), found entertainment in the 3 hour drive around the world’s famous Cabot Trail. As a nine year old, I did not. I joined because 1 – I was forced to, and 2 – I thought that by agreeing with little fuss, I’d get an ice cream cone in Cheticamp out of the deal. Sometimes I was lucky, other times my hopes faded when I realized that the ice cream shop was closed for the season.

image5Before we make our way to Mostar, we stop briefly in Medjugorje, a small town near the Croatian border which has been an unofficial pilgrimage place for Christians since the Virgin Mary allegedly appeared on Apparition Hill in 1981. It’s a place where my French, Catholic grandmother would have aspired to visit if she was a fan of traveling – which she’s not. All of the little gift shops are jammed with empty bottles for tourists to fill with Holy Water, postcards with the Virgin Mary, and other religious knick-knacks to stock up on. But what’s really magical about this place is the church. While I don’t believe in a higher power, I admire those who do. Seeing the masses of people who have traveled from far and wide to attend mass in the St. James Church was magical. After some tea and walking the main strip, we’re on the road again, heading towards Mostar.

image1Mostar is named after its famous bridge, or by those who historically guarded it I should say. Walking through its streets filled with small stalls, you’d never realize that just a short time ago, the city was heavily destroyed in the Siege of Mostar, and since then, the city has been working to rebuild – but the effects of the war can still be seen. According to a tour guide that I overheard near the entrance of the market, Mostar has a 40% unemployment rate, but the city is working to fix that and a hotel that once welcomed many to the city before the war, will be opening again next year, employing hundreds of people. While things are looking up, there are signs placed around the city with the simple message “Don’t Forget”. It sends a powerful message even among the bustle of restaurants, cafes, gift shops, and flocks of tourists of the county’s bloody past.

image3The bridge jumpers, young men who take payment from tourists to jump from the centre of the Stari Most bridge (24m high), take the plunge into the frigid waters below. I wasn’t sure if there would be any present since it was the end of October, but there were two. Neither of which I had the opportunity to see do the jump. I’m sure there are many more during the summer months.

While I only had a small taste of Bosnia and Herzegovina, it left me wanting more. My curiousity has been peaked and now, after just a week being back in Canada, I’m already looking at ways to go back! To anyone traveling to Croatia, consider Bosnia and Herzegovina as a side trip. It’s very accessible from both Dubrovnik (2.5 hrs) and Split (a little over 2 hrs).

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Lēe Hò Taiwan

Lēe Hò Taiwan

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When I reflect on some of the adventures I’ve had, one that will always have a special place in my heart is Taiwan. From its stinky tofu to its bustling night markets, to its volcanic ruggedness and its pristine beaches, Taiwan as a whole will always bring me amazing memories.

Taiwan introduced me to the roadside duck. It was the first place I rode my first scooter. It was home to my first earthquake. And it is home to quite possibly some of the nicest people you will ever meet.

People told me not to travel to Taiwan during Lunar New Year. They told me that Taipei is dead and that everyone leaves to be with their families. They told me that everything shuts down and that, in a nutshell, there’s nothing to do. So when I was planning how I would spend my vacation, I decided that Taiwan during Lunar New Year was the best place. I’m so glad I didn’t listen to those people.

 

Now I’m going to keep this short because the country in and of itself is only 394 kms long but the experiences you get all around the small island nation are unique in their own way. In Taipei, you have amazing night markets (including snake alley), Taipei 101, Chiang Kai-Shek Memorial, beer floats (that’s right people, beer and ice cream), stinky tofu, and free Taiwanese rock concerts. Head southeast and you land in Hualien – palm trees, Taroko Gorge, and earthquakes. Make your way to the tip of the country and you’re in surf country. The laid back, reggae vibe is present in the strangest of places. It was here that everyone flocks to during New Years it seems and there are no vacancies anywhere in the town. If you get stranded without a place to stay, like I did, set up shop on the beach – there are lots of people who bring their tents and set up shop there – set up a bonfire and make friends, you’ll never be alone. Eventually you’ll have to make your way back to Taipei to fly back to wherever you came from but first, take a pit stop in Kaohsiung. I wish I had spent more time in Kaohsiung but that didn’t happen but Kaohsiung is the perfect balance of ancient and modern – or so I’ve heard from friends that have lived there.

Taiwan seems to always get overlooked by people looking at traveling the Asia circuit. Some put Japan, Korea, and China on their list, or go the South-Eastern route and put Thailand, Malaysia, Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia but if you’re looking for something a little off the beaten track and offers a LOT in a small package – Taiwan is top on my list.