Archive for March, 2019

Jamaican Joint Venture
March 23, 2019

Shortly before flying on from Norman Manley International at Kingston, Jamaica‘s capital.

Shortly before leaving Jamaica behind from Norman Manley International at Kingston, the island’s capital.

The funky island of Jamaica was the last place we visited together – after some 4 months and 8 countries: wild mojito-soaked nights in México, splendid days of roadtrippin’ on the islands of Hawai’i, snorkeling in Sulawesi, train rides in Myanmar, relaxing in hammocks on Thai islands and enjoying conversations with warm-hearted people in Communist Cuba.

We were quite unsure, initially, what Caribbean islands to pick for that leg of the trip and high on the list were e.g. Puerto Rico (for its mysterious Isla de Mona) or European overseas territory like Martinique, Guadeloupe or Saint Martin? Or maybe even the Bahamas? It all turned out to be a rather pricey last step-over and we were on a budget after all. So we finally opted for the two biggies Cuba (for its history) and its Southern neighbour Jamaica (for its relaxed vibes), leaving the island of Hispaniola for another time: I remain being highly curious about the République d’Haïti as well as the República Dominicana.

Frenchman‘s Bay at Treasure Beach on Jamaica‘s South Coast.

Frenchman‘s Bay at Treasure Beach on Jamaica‘s South Coast.

While our days in Cuba passed away, I began pondering about if Jamaica really would be as relaxing as its reputation. Wait, what actually is its reputation? A Google search of “reputation of Jamaica” actually throws up things like:

“I wonder why Jamaica has such a bad reputation” / “Is it safe for tourists?” / “Is Jamaica dangerous?” / “Flawed paradise: Catching the buzz of the real Jamaica”

Unsurprisingly, it dawned on me that those last days that cK and I had together might not be quite as relaxing as we would have wished for. Well – perfect! Who needs to relax here? We want adventures! Also, my beloved sister is a well-traveled expert on Jamaica and she happily supplied us with information on transport costs, food and street wisdom. We felt ready for the low-budget challenge once we were through airport security and immigration, enjoying free internet after those abstemious Cuban days.

Ocho Rios, on the northern shore.

Ocho Rios, on the northern shore.

Before getting into personal travel details, here are some general facts and numbers on the island that locals apparently refer to as “the rock”:

Jamaica’s national tongue is a variation of English called Jamaican Patois, Elizabeth II. is officially still the head of state (but the island gained independence from the UK in 1962) and its 3 million inhabitants are spread along 10,000 sq km (Belgium, in comparison, is about three times as large: 30,700 sq km). The currency is the Jamaican dollar and € 1 buys you about 140 Jamaican $.

Itinerary

A short flight from Holguín in Cuba took us to Montego Bay on Jamaica’s northern shore. Research told us that hostels would be rather expensive (the most expensive on the whole trip, in fact, since we slept in the car on O’ahu and Kaua’i) – we decided to look around once in town, starting with the Reggae Hostel. Now, getting into downtown was an issue – the airport is about 4km away and after the ATMs refused both our credit cards and the taxi drivers tried to charge us the dumb tourist prize (20 U.S.$ instead of 1$) we decided to walk. However, we didn’t come far – another (much friendlier) driver let us jump into his car for a buck each. The Reggae Hostel actually did turn out to be the cheapest: we paid 16 euro for a dorm in a bunk bed.

Montego Bay‘s Reggae Hostel was the cheapest pick in town.

Montego Bay‘s Reggae Hostel was the cheapest pick in town.

What to do in Montego Bay? Well, we walked around quite a bit, got familiar with people, prizes, street concepts and explored: from the post office at Barnett Street to Pye River Cemetary and back after shopping groceries in Mega Mart along the Howard Cooke Boulevard.

Also, we experienced the classic Let-me-sell-you-dope incident: (Just another) Dude approaches us on the street: “I know you guys from the hostel, how do you like it, I can tell you are looking for something special, let me show you around, come come, I bring you to the best local bar!” We didn’t really feel like heading home yet, so followed suit, being fully aware that it’d be hard to get out of that situation again (easily). Just the way he tried to sell us his weed was remarkably funny: “This is good mountain weed, black soil (or was it brown?) and you better buy right now, because it’s Thursday and it’ll be more expensive again tomorrow!” We actually did feel a little paranoid that evening in the hostel: Is he possibly working here?

Negril Beach, a fabulous place to watch the sun set above the sea.

Negril Beach, a fabulous place to watch the sun set above the sea.

After two nights in MoBay we took a Route Taxi towards Negril Beach, mainly because we wanted to see the sunset above the ocean one last time. Route Taxis are an easy and straightforward way to get around the island, especially outside Kingston (which is mainly served by buses) and the prizes are set, so there is nothing to worry. For Negril we booked a place online (and paid a mere 13 euro), did indeed enjoy the sun setting over the sea (at least some of us did) and took it real easy. Very enjoyable.

Next on the list was a place I was looking forward to most: Treasure Beach on the south side. Lonely Planet described it as a “unique part of Jamaica that gets all the facets of the quintessential Caribbean experience exactly right.” Whatever that was supposed to mean: I was keen. cK organised accommodation via Air B’n’B (for 14 euro each), but it was no different from a regular guesthouse. A sweet one, though! There were quite some travelers in the rooms around us and most of them spoke German, so we ignored them altogether and simply had a fabulous time ourselves. Contrary to what we’ve heard, the beaches were sweet and the currents big fun!

In front of the Gee Wiz Vegetarian Restaurant in Treasure Beach: likely the best food on the entire island.

In front of the Gee Wiz Vegetarian Restaurant in Treasure Beach: likely the best food on the entire island.

By the way: If you like good (and especially vegan) food, there is one place in town you definitely shouldn’t miss: the Gee Wiz Vegetarian Restaurant. That night my gut was the happiest on the island, I’m sure of it!

Later that night we were watching what is likely the world’s most famous Jamaican comedy: Cool Runnings, a 1993 movie (by Jon Turteltaub) telling the real story of Jamaica’s bobsleigh team’s running at the 1988 Winter Olympics in Alberta, Canada (they didn’t win). Bad decision, good story!

As sweet as Treasure Beach was to us: We needed to head on because time was running out. Three days before splitting ways we went to Kingston, Jamaica’s capital (680,000 inhabitants, founded in 1692). There would have been rather cheap accommodation options, but we decided to use Couchsurfing and that actually turned out rather nicely. Our host was a 39 y.o. mother of two named Melissa who worked nightshifts in a dancehall bar. We weren’t exactly good at communicating with each other, but that might have had various reasons, e.g. the incredibly loud volume of the speakers. However, we did end up at her place at one point and spend our final 3 nights there as well. It’s been all rather uncomplicated luckily – a rather unusual, but nevertheless most interesting CS experience.

The Little Dunn’s Waterfall near Ocho Rios.

The Little Dunn’s Waterfall near Ocho Rios.

Three nights meant two full days for us – on Day I (March 12) we got up when Melissa’s daughter played the flute in the morning and there was no return to peaceful slumber. We then headed Downtown and from there took a bus to the city of Ocho Rios on the north coast in order to do some hiking and see some waterfalls. It’s been lovely to see the island’s lush interior, but in retrospect we should probably have gone to Port Antonio in the district of Portland instead. Well, next time… I guess?

Also, we (rather literally) had a hell of a trip since just next to us on the bus was a crazy dude who free-style preached to his busload of sheep about how Jesus helped him to get through bad times and how important Christ is for each and everyone. One of those things that make you realize how Jamaica is often not only not relaxed, but actually very strenuous and certainly not cool. It’s a relatively poor country after all and it really has its more than fair share of issues and economic downsides.

Watching the splendid-coloured waters while walking along the highway...

Watching the splendid-coloured waters while walking along the highway…

The city of Ocho Rios wasn’t exactly overwhelming (and most of the locals not really a charming bunch), but walking in the outskirts was a welcoming distraction. We walked west (along the highway) towards the Little Dunn’s River Falls, but even there some kids tried to charge us quite a ridiculous tourist prize to get down to the coast, so we relaxed at an alternative entrance. Again, if you face the choice, you’re probably better off with Port Antonio and Portland instead!

Day II was exclusively Kingston! We started off with seeing the National Heroes Park (if you leave Jamaica without having heard of Sam Sharpe and Norman Manley you failed!), then walked all along the city to Emancipation Park and finally arrived at 56 Hope Road, Kingston 6: Bob Marley’s former place of residence and also home to the Tuff Gong reggae record label, a museum since 1987 (Marley died 1981 in Miami, aged only 36).

The Bob Marley Museum in Northern Kingston.

The Bob Marley Museum in Northern Kingston.

We walked all the way back into Downtown again, passing Trench Town and some curious places like Rock City (that rather reminder me of Detroit). At that point we were definitely ready to leave “the rock” behind. Fun fact: We kept on being asked about where we’re from and the answer “Sweden!” was already firmly established (we’d sometimes say “He’s from Finland, I’m Swedish”). People just loved it! Sweden really seems to be the thing – popular all around the planet. That makes me wanna see the country of northern bliss again… (as if 2009, ’14, ’17 and ’18 had not been enough!). At Treasure Beach, however, one Jamaican saleswoman actually responded in Swedish: “Åh, jag pratar lite svenska!” – we smiled surprisingly and quickly hushed away.

White Stripe happens to be Jamaica’s national beer. You’re certainly better off smoking a spliff.

Red Stripe happens to be Jamaica’s national beer. You’re certainly better off smoking a spliff.

Costs

Jamaica was rather expensive country in comparison – not so much when it comes to food and transportation, but definitely concerning accommodation – it’s rather comparable to the U.S. or Australia here. Luckily, however, we were able to couchsurf in the capital – that drastically reduced costs to a tolerable medium.

This is what we spent in total (in U.S.$) over 8,5 days.

This is what we spent in total (in U.S.$) over 8,5 days.

Jamaica in comparison to the other countries visited so far on this trip.

Jamaica in comparison to the other countries visited so far on this trip.

“Hello there!” – turtles inside a city park in Ocho Rios.

“Hello there!” – turtles inside a city park in Ocho Rios.

Crossing Castro‘s Cuba
March 14, 2019

After almost three wonderful (and way too quickly passing) weeks in México we found ourselves on a plane from Cancún to La Habana (a/k/a Havana), Cuba’s notorious capital city. So what to expect? We heard about the beauty of the Old Town, saw pictures of impressively beautiful old cars and we knew that there would be two parallel currencies floating on the island: the local Cuban peso (CUP) plus a so-called ‘tourist’ peso, the Cuban Convertible Peso (CUC).

What sounded confusing at first turned out to be rather uncomplicated, though: the CUC is nothing but the U.S.$ in disguise, it’s basically the exact same (because its value is bound to it, like the Danish krona is bound to the euro), but they decided to call it Cuban Convertible Peso. Same thing. I just called it “dólar”. One dólar/CUC is worth about 24 to 25 pesos/CUP and you only really need it to pay for accomodation (prices here are always given in CUC) and transport with either the tourist bus company Viazul or a private taxi (the latter being only slightly more expensive, but much faster).

It’s just impossible not to be impressed by the amount of those crazy beautiful old-school cars all over the island.

It’s just impossible not to be impressed by the amount of those crazy beautiful old-school cars all over the island.

Everything else you can pay in pesos really and that is pretty much what we did. If anything, it was actually more confusing for the locals; we sometimes got more many back than we should have. All due to their double currency game. It was fun.

Immigration into the country proved straightforward: We paid some 361 Mexican pesos, i.e. about 16 euro, for our Cuban Tourist Visa just before getting onto the flight in México, then sorted out the money situation in Havana and refused to take an expensive taxi to Downtown (basically everyone else did, but we had time). Instead, we wandered around in the area, talked to some security dudes who wouldn’t tell us about the local bus, but it eventually popped up and off we were, paying a mere fraction: 3 pesos (12 cents) each.

Just about to leave our last “casa particular” in the city of Holguín.

Just about to leave our last “casa particular” in the city of Holguín.

The most common thing to do for a budget backpacker in Cuba is to stay in so-called Casas particulares, basically a homestay. They’re as cheap as a hostel in México, but you get a private room with bathroom and usually enough space to spread out even. Sometimes there would even be space for 4 people, so you’d save more in a bigger group. For Havana we secured one for the first 2 nights online and paid 11 $ (in CUC) together per night.

So there is plenty of cheap accommodation in Cuba and also the street food is very affordable – eating-wise it probably doesn’t get much cheaper than on this island really. Water can be an issue, though – you simply don’t easily find big (1.5l) bottles or even 5l containers. And if you do, they tend to be quite overprized.

Now, the biggest deal on Cuba is transportation. As mentioned above, there are mainly 2 possibilities for foreign travelers: Either you take a Viazul bus for relatively little or you hire a private taxi. The buses are cheaper, but definitely take their time. Also, you have to book them well in advance. Since we only had 10 days, we simply decided to pay for all transport beforehand when figuring stuff out at the Havana Viazul Bus Station. And it actually proved to be a good idea, even if it took away the usual freedom of coming and leaving as one pleases.

Itinerary

So our travel schedule looked like this: We’d spend 3 nights in La Habana, then take a taxi to the city of Trinidad (for 30 $ each), stay for 2 nights, bus on to Camagüey (15 $), stay 2 nights, bus to Santiago de Cuba (18 $) and, after another 2 nights, finally head on to Holguín (11 $) – from there we’d take the weekly flight to Montego Bay in Jamaica.

And that is what we sticked to – we didn’t regret it. Now, we considered to see other cities, of course – Cienfuegos and Santa Clara e.g. were hot candidates – but we just didn’t. If we hadn’t had a flight from Holguín, we might as well have substituted that with Baracoa, but well, one simply can’t see it all. Next life! But, well, Cuba is one of those places that one would is excited to see evolve and revisit in, say, 20 or 30 years. Vamos a ver!

Curious street art in Santiago de Cuba.

Curious street art in Santiago de Cuba.

Ambivalent thoughts

I really didn’t know what to expect of visiting a country that is in many regards stuck in the past due to its Communist approach, especially of economics – so that left plenty of room for surprises and we welcomed them! Both of us were born into a Communist state (the German Democratic Republic or GDR/DDR in short), but it collapsed when we were too young to notice anything (I was apparently sick in bed the day the wall came down and hence my parents couldn’t head out to see it just then).

In many ways, strolling through the streets of Cuba and watching buildings of former glory and grandeur having fallen to pieces made me think of the GDR – it basically was how I always imagined Berlin and other cities like Erfurt and Leipzig to look like in the 1980ies (and 90s). Not enough money left to maintain once beautiful houses and living quarters. Also, close to no commercials and no advertisement. Not a great deal cars on the road (but the ones we saw looked both spectacularly beautiful, but also run-down).

Taken from our shared taxi towards Trinidad.

Taken from our shared taxi towards Trinidad.

The so-called “supermercados” or convenience stores were sparsely equipped, mostly with only one brand per product (no need for competition in a planned economy). As mentioned before, there often wouldn’t even be water bottles left and early in the day people are cueing up in front of bakeries and other shops in order to get their share of bread and (delicious and cheap-as-sugar-hell) cake.

We later learned that under beloved revolucionero Fidel Castro (who died in late 2016) Cubans weren’t even allowed to own computers, cell phones or DVD players (until Fidel’s brother Raúl took over the island’s reigns in 2008).

Turning into Che on the markets of Trinidad.

Turning into Che on the markets of Trinidad.

Now, what does and did all that do with the Cuban people and what do they think of their country and the general situation? I happened to have some interesting conversations with some people (mostly our hosts) and their opinions were are pretty much unanimous: “We’re anti-imperialist, what the U.S. do is wrong, what Putin does is right (the E.U. is basically Trump’s wagging tail and can’t be counted on); there is lots of violence in countries like México and Colombia and our kids are safe here in Cuba”. There is something to all that, of course, but I don’t want to dig too deep at this place (it’s a travel post after all). It makes one think, however.

There seems to be a general tendency of painting things black and white – it’s either/or. We also noticed an unequivocal tendency to reduce the country’s history to basically two events: the fight for independence from Spain (under heavy influence from beloved national hero José Martí, political theorist, writer and poet – similarly idolised like Abraham Lincoln or México’s Benito Juárez) that was finally achieved in the late 19th century. And then, of course, the notorious revolutionary struggle in the 1950s that led to the abdication of the corrupt military (and U.S. backed) government under authoritarian leader Fulfencio Batista and its 1959 replacement with a socialist-turned-Communist regime headed by the Castro brothers Fidel and Raúl plus a 31-year old doctor and revolutionary from Argentina named Ernesto “Ché” Guevara (who finally died on just another attempted revolution in the Bolivian jungle in 1967).

cK hanging out in just another wonderfully old car on some Havana side street.

cK hanging out in just another wonderfully old car on some Havana side street.

From 1965 on, Cuba has been governed by only one political force, that being the Communist Party of Cuba, under factual rule of only two individuals (until this day), one of them becoming a world-wide icon for the anti-imperialist cause, beloved by many, despised my many others.

Having said all that, Cuba is a very interesting place to travel to and the more Spanish you speak the better (as is probably true for anywhere in Latin America) – we met people of all kinds and characters, some of them being seriously annoying and frustrating; others absolutely enchanting (like our last host in Holguín). We met the sweetest and most charming people, e.g. in a food stall in a small village near Playa Ancon (south of Trinidad) or in the Museo Histórico 26 de julio in Santiago de Cuba.

For various reasons we at one point decided to answer the ubiquitous question to what country we’d be coming from with: “Suecia!” (Sweden) — here you see us indicating to a photo of famous Swedish prime minister Olof Palme (inside the “Museo Histórico 26 de julio”).

For various reasons we at one point decided to answer the ubiquitous question to what country we’d be coming from with: “Suecia!” (Sweden) — here you see us indicating to a photo of famous Swedish prime minister Olof Palme (inside the “Museo Histórico 26 de julio”).

There were people with a great amount of wit and humour and then there were some lads who lacked all of the above completely, but nevertheless giving us an interesting insight into a generally still deeply conservative society. And that was probably to be expected from an island that deliberately ignores calls for gender equality and, generally, a more relaxed and laid-back view on things – among other things being isolated by the U.S. travel embargo that seriously needs to be removed (something sadly not bound to happen under the current mean joke of a president in the White House).

One last word about the bookshop situation: it was depressing! Communism definitely does not make for well-sorted bookshops – you might still want to check out how a Cuban bookstore looks from the inside. In case you’re already oversaturated with stories about Fidel Castro, Che and the glorious 1950s, you’re unlikely to linger for long.

A better title might have been: “Fit in old age! – with Fidel Castro”.

A better title might have been: “Fit in old age! – with Fidel Castro”.

City reflections

While the capital, La Habana, was by far the most interesting place to explore, it was also the most touristic and that had consequences for the locals’ attitude: it wasn’t exactly laissez-faire. Also, everything from fruits to snacks was much more expensive in the Historic Quarter than at the more local area we stayed at (west of the Paseo del Prado/de Martí).

Trinidad turned out to be equally filled with tourist groups (considering its compact size), hence we were happy to rent out bikes and spend a considerable amount of time at Playa Ancon, some 12 km south of town. In case you happen to end up here and read this: Make sure you don’t miss on the Loma de la Vigía viewpoint (we sadly did).

Street art in La Habana Vieja.

Street art in La Habana Vieja.

The friendliest and most sympathetic places to us were Camagüey and Holguín, both situated on the island’s Western side. Our host in Holguín confirmed: “Oriente es lo mejor. También, todos los presidentes son de aquí.” – well, it’s true: the Castro brothers have been born some 70 km west of Holguín, in a village named Birán,

Finally, Santiago de Cuba was an interesting mixture of everything. Even if it sometimes says, it would be in competition with the capital – it’s not; Havana is much bigger and plays on a completely different level. However, Santiago was an essential stepping stone for Castro’s Communist revolution (it is also here that he first attempted to overthrow the Batista regime on July 26 in 1953).

A real Cuban vaquero!

A real Cuban vaquero!

Costs

Cuba can be an expensive place to visit, but it absolutely doesn’t need to. Accommodation and especially street food are incredibly cheap and even transport doesn’t have to be an issue if you plan accordingly (and are okay with paying a little more for a taxi in case you missed the bus). Stay away from tourist places and eat where the locals eat. There is e.g. pizza for 5 to 10 pesos (less than 50 U.S. cents).

Transportation costs in Cuba were highest due to the relatively long distances. Other than that: Nothing to worry about accommodation and food costs (as long as you don‘t crave government-run restaurant food!).

Transportation costs in Cuba were highest due to the relatively long distances. Other than that: Nothing to worry about accommodation and food costs (as long as you don‘t crave government-run restaurant food!).

On the cenotes of the Yucatan Peninsula
March 8, 2019

A cenote close to the ancient Maya city known today as “Ek Balam”.

A cenote close to the ancient Maya city known today as “Ek Balam”.

I only learned about cenotes a mere weeks before I set foot on that magical country called México – what they are is quickly explained, but there is a much more profound story behind them than that they make for spectacular swimming pools or even that the ancient Maya apparently included them in sacrificial ceremonies.

Cenotes are natural sinkholes and they are the result of collapsing limestone ceilings – relatively soft rock from right below the earth’s surface. There are innumerable examples of sudden sinkhole breakaways all over the planet and even though that does sound like adventurous, it can turn out quite catastrophic in urban areas.

One such example was the 2007 sinkhole in Guatemala: Here, a 100m deep sinkhole was formed in the capital city’s northeast, in the middle of a poor neighbourhood; 5 people lost their lives and about a thousand needed to be evacuated.

The ‘city cenote’ within the charming town of Valladolid (in Yucatan State).

The ‘city cenote’ within the charming town of Valladolid (in Yucatan State).

Now, in the Yucatan Peninsula there are about 6,000 sinkholes (or cenotes) of varying sizes – most are reasonably small, but some are large enough to serve as a decent pool (and a favorite tourist attraction). Cenotes connect the planet’s surface with underground water bodies and that means mostly very clean fresh water. This was especially important for the ancient Maya since there are almost no rivers or lakes located on the peninsula.

So what is so interesting about the cenotes in that specific region? The Yucatan Peninsula is most famous among geologists for the location of the Chicxulub crater that was formed by the impact of either an asteroid or comet about 66 million years ago. That impact was a dramatic one and most likely responsible for a mass extinction including the disappearance of non-avian dinosaurs (today’s birds are the descendants of flying dinosaurs) which gave rise to populations of small possibly mouse-like mammals – our ancestors. However, it is estimated that about 75 % of all flora and fauna species then present on the planet became extinct.

The location of the Chicxulub crater in the north of the Yucatan Peninsula (the center being close to the town that gave the crater its name: Chicxulub).

The location of the Chicxulub crater in the north of the Yucatan Peninsula (the center being close to the town that gave the crater its name: Chicxulub).

The following map of the crater impact structure reveals a striking concentration of cenotes around the crater rim (represented by white dots; the white line shows the coastline). These sinkholes can not only be as deep as up to 100 metres, they are actually connected by a vast network of underwater cave structures. And these were most likely formed by the asteroid’s (or comet’s) tremendous impact that would change the face and shape of the planet until today. Keep all this in mind next time you jump into one of those wonderfully refreshing natural wonders!

The so-called Chicxulub ‘impactor’ had an estimated diameter of between 11 to 81 kilometres. As a result it carried the energy of about 21 to 921 Hiroshima Atomic bombs causing a 100 m high tsunami.

The so-called Chicxulub ‘impactor’ had an estimated diameter of between 11 to 81 kilometres. As a result it carried the energy of about 21 to 921 Hiroshima Atomic bombs causing a 100 m high tsunami.

Click here for a visual animation of the Chicxulub impactor on the Yucatan Peninsula.

Across México: From CDMX to the Yucatan
March 7, 2019

The mysterious beauty of a cenote, a sinkhole with a fascinating geological history – this one being located right in the centre of Valladolid in Yucatan State.

The mysterious beauty of a cenote, a sinkhole with a fascinating geological history – this one being located right in the centre of Valladolid in Yucatan State.

We arrived in México Ciudad (nowadays shortened to CDMX) on February 6, 2019. after many weeks in South-East Asia and on Hawai’i this was our first step into Latin America and it would turn out to be one of my most favourite destinations so far. We had 18 days to spend before heading on to Cuba from Cancún Airport and there was a whole bunch on our list – after 2 days in the capital I was already sure I’d definitely want to return.

Zócalo in México Ciudad, probably featuring the country’s biggest flag.

Zócalo in México Ciudad, probably featuring the country’s biggest flag.

Ciudad de México (CDMX)

Having arranged a couchsurfing place beforehand (while still in Kaua’i) we made our way into the vast metro network of the capital and ended up in the district of Del Valle; our host lived at the metro stop Insurgentes Sur (about half an hour south of the the city center). We didn’t do much that first night, but drank wine with our host and her mom and cooked dinner. Also, this was the first time ever that we had a separate room each while couchsurfing, big luxury.

We spent three full days in the capital, splitting our time equally between three areas: the Centro Historico (day 1), Parque de Chapultepec (day 2) and Coyoacán (day 3).

Our first day of sightseeing began at the metro stop Juárez (named after likely the most famous and popular president México ever had, Benito Juárez) – from Alameda Central we made our way along the old and highly enchanting Palacio Postal, Zócalo and the Catedral Metropolitana to Templo Mayor and its museum, quite the gem and enough to relit interest in the old Aztec, pre-Spanish culture. Shortly after we got out, heading east towards the markets along Calle Moneda I was running into a former couchsurfer of mine, who recognized me on the spot; very delightful, Katerina!

Inside Templo Mayor, just before entering the museum.

Inside Templo Mayor, just before entering the museum.

Further sightseeing highlights that day were the Plaza 23 de Mayo, the Plaza Garibaldi and the Plaza Regina where we were being mesmerised by a rather fascinating street performance. Also, if you happen to be on Zócalo (the city’s main square) around 18:00, you can witness how soldiers take down the enormous national flag in one big ceremonial act.

First thing on the list for Day 2 was to arrange bus tickets to Oaxaca Ciudad for the day after (we meanwhile decided to spend one extra day in CDMX) – it’s not exactly straightforward buying tickets online with a non-Mexican credit card, so we were heading directly to the Terminal de Autobuses de Pasajeros Oriente (TAPO) before our actual day of sightseeing was about to begin. We took the metro to Insurgentes, then walked along the Avenida Paseo de la Reforma towards the Parque de Chapultepec and actually spent some 4 hours in the excellent Museo Nacional de Antropología, really one of the best museums I ever visited and absolutely worth every minute of your time and attention.

Worshipping el maíz – art depicted in the excellet Museo Nacional de Antropologia.

Worshipping el maíz – art depicted in the excellet Museo Nacional de Antropologia.

After the museum we explored more things in and around the park:

  • the Tótem Canadiense
  • the water installations (around the Monumental Xochipilli)
  • the Fuente de Tláloc (in front of Diego Rivera’s Cárcamo de Dolores)
  • the cactus gardens just behind (at the Museo Jardin del Agua)
  • the Parque España and its counterpart, the highly enchanting Parque México

Somewhere around there we had dinner, got ourselves some beer and walked down the street as if we were smoking a spliff (apparently it’s illegal to drink alcohol on the streets in México). We then took the metro all the way to the stop Coyoacán and walked down into the district with the same name to meet Tere, a couchsurfer I hooked up with before, and her brother Alejandro. Brilliant and highly stimulant conversations followed; the feeling emerged that we will meet again some day. Some time later our couchhost Arlet joined the party and we soon moved on to another bar in the area; however, cK and I were quite too exhausted from one long day of sightseeing.

cK relaxing in el Parque Frida Kahlo in the arty district of Coyoacán.

cK relaxing in el Parque Frida Kahlo in the arty district of Coyoacán.

Our final day in CDMX was to be focused on the very district we had beers the night before, Coyoacán – it happens to be where the famous Mexican painters Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera had their homes, a very liberal and artistic minded area. We originally planned to get into Frida Kahlo’s house (turned into a museum ever since her death in 1954), but it turned out to be not only overpriced (250 pesos on a weekend day), but also terribly crowded. Instead, we decided to spend the time exploring more of charming Coyoacán, simply inhaling the stimulating spirit of art and raison d’être. We would not be disappointed at all, that place is packed with sweet surprises and wonderful street art. We especially fancied hanging out at the Parque de Frida Kahlo. If you happen to be here at night, I would recommend visiting a bar called El Jarocho.

Other things we did and see that day worth mentioning:

    the Parque de los Venados
    the Cineteca Nacional
    the Museo Casa de Leon Trotzky (we haven’t actually been inside, though)
    the gardens around the Museo de las Intervenciones
    exploring more of the area just north of the Centro Historico, especially around Plaza Garibaldi and the Plaza 23 de Mayo

That was it for in the capital – later that evening on February 9 we jumped into the night bus towards Oaxaca Ciudad from TAPO in eastern CDMX.

Colourful houses in Oaxaca Ciudad.

Colourful houses in Oaxaca Ciudad.

Oaxaca

My personal expectations of both the state and its capital were reasonably high (due to the stories of my good friends Josie who happened to travel the area about a year earlier) and I was not to be disappointed in the least. Oaxaca delivered all the way and I utterly fell in love with it.

We arrived in Oaxaca Ciudad in the early hours of February 10, watching the sun rise while entering the Chocolate Hostal in la Calle de los Libres. I picked the place for good reviews on Booking.com and I also fancied the name. A friend from Sweden (who I visited in Bern in the summer of 2013) later wrote me that she had stayed in the same place just a mere weeks earlier.

Up on the terrace of el Chocolate Hostal – it‘s really all about being at the right time at the right place.

Up on the terrace of el Chocolate Hostal – it‘s really all about being at the right time at the right place.

It was the perfect place for us by all means: With us waiting at the reception for a slightly confused hostel receptionist to get his stuff sorted was a traveler from Portugal named Roberto – a very peculiar, but likable character; the three of us ended up in the same room and I kept on sleeping until the sunbeams were hitting my face from a window towards the rooftop. I woke up hearing the sounds of a guitar being played and later went up to have a look at the source of it. This is how I got to know Julie, a girl from around Freiburg who now lived in Leipzig to study education – a very sympathetic street musician and artist. Her companion was a fellow traveler from Seattle, Washington, in his late 30s named Tim.

After cK and I spent a majority of the day wandering around the city, among other things listening to an open air concert in front of the Catedral de Oaxaca, I again made my way up to the rooftop terrace and then ran into three Austrian girls (named Gloria, Veronika and Miriam) who cK and I immediately connected with. That same night still the five of us rented a car for the upcoming 24 hours. After cooking dinner together I got up to the rooftop and spent the rest of that enchanting day chatting with Julie, Tim, and a young traveler from Argentina who provided us with the finest hierba.

Veronika and cK enjoying the view at Hierve El Agua (near Mitla in Oaxaca).

Veronika and cK enjoying the view at Hierve El Agua (near Mitla in Oaxaca).

Next thing early morning, cK, the Austrians and I were driving towards Hierve El Agua, a set of natural rock formations that were being created by fresh water springs whose water is over-saturated with minerals like calcium carbonate. Apart from four other travelers who set up tents at the cascades we were the first people at the site and it was quite the sight. If you decide to go, you should definitely come as early as possible.

When driving back to Oaxaca, we passed through the attractive little city of Mitla, where we visited parts of the ruins north of town plus the Parroquia de San Pablo. On the way out we took a dusty sideroad and suddenly faced the first ever tornado (rather: a whirlwind) any of us has ever seen. Sweet and incredibly rapid!

Hanging out in the rather refreshing lagoon at Hierve El Agua.

Hanging out in the rather refreshing lagoon at Hierve El Agua.
Hanging out in the rather refreshing lagoon at Hierve El Agua.

After shortly stopping at Santa María del Tule (to see the age-old Arbol de Tule) we still tried to make it to Monte Alban, the original city of Oaxaca and now an archaeological site about 9km to the west from Oaxaca’s central square. We arrived right in time for the guards to close the gate and enjoyed the sunset over the city instead. Later that night we invited a young German artist into the hostel, Fabienne, who was about to be our couchhost for the 3rd night in town.

We joined a “free” walking tour the following day and made it to Monte Alban in the afternoon, hitching a ride in the back of a regular car (the five of us all squeezed together), enjoying the scenery almost completely devoid of other people before heading back to town to have dinner inside the Mercado 20 de noviembre. We more or less accidentally ended up in a back-alley of the theatre where they showed Giuseppe Tornatore’s 1988 classic Cinema Paradiso (in O.V. with Spanish subtitles) on a projector. We highly enjoyed watching the spectacle (they had to restart the movie repeatedly due to technical difficulties) and organized some cans of beer that had to be carefully refilled into plastic bottles since Mexicans (quite like the Polish) are apparently so afraid of their citizens being drunk that they thought it a good idea to make drinking in public illicit. They caught us twice and we almost had to leave the open air cinema, but somehow managed.

Driving out of Mitla.

Driving out of Mitla.

The girls left that night towards CDMX and cK and I settled over to couchsurf with Fabienne who rented an apartment in the north-east of town. After visiting a bunch of art galleries and the city museum, getting lost in a bookshop and trying hard to find some purple dye and peroxide to colour our hair and beard we set off to catch a minibus towards the coast the next night. At the bus station of Transportes Villa de Pacífico we also met Roberto again who left the city together with us.

We arrived in Puerto Escondido in the early morning of February 14, didn’t book any accommodation in advance, but found two empty beds for us at Puerto Dreams Hostel, immediately falling asleep (I don’t even know if I was able to sleep in that minibus at all) – Roberto booked a bed at neighbouring La Escondida Hostel, but couldn’t check in until some time in the afternoon (but used the time to head down to the beaches). There was a Valentine’s Party at an associated hostel (Puerto Dreams Surf House) that ended in the pool at one point – and cK got himself a proper vaquero hat.

Puerto Escondido – not so hidden anymore.

Puerto Escondido – not so hidden anymore.

After one lazy day at sweet Playa Coral in Escondido we took a late afternoon bus to Mazunte, but quickly realised that the last colectivo for the day was long gone, hence got stuck at the highway crossing before finally hitching to the beach and our pre-booked hostel called Dharma Spa (acceptable for a night, but otherwise not worth bothering). The next morning (February 16) my good friend Micha from Berlin arrived in Mazunte as well and I met him at the beach while cK was riding the colectivo to Pochutla to acquire information about bus connections and prizes from the coast to San Cristóbal de las Casas in the state of Chiapas.

Micha was rather spontaneously booking a trip to México as well, like us starting with the capital (though a couple days later), but while we had already booked a connecting flight from Cancún to Cuba he was bound to return to CDMX. However, there was a sweet spot that just fit perfectly in both our itineraries and we used it to the fullest. First thing we did was organising new accommodation and we got lucky with a room directly at the beach, not far from the peninsula and Punta Cometa – the 3 of us paid 500 pesos for the night.

Watching the sunset with Micha and cK at Punta Cometa.

Watching the sunset with Micha and cK at Punta Cometa.

Our house in Mazunte – directly at the beach.

Our house in Mazunte – directly at the beach.

Right after we carried the backpacks over from the hostel we jumped into the water and there we met Julie and Tim a second time – they hitchhiked from Oaxaca Ciudad to the coast and based themselves at a work-away place in Puerto Escondido. Josie happened to be in Mazunte as well (in late 2017), so she was with us in thoughts when we ascended the peninsula for watching the sunset later and then ending the day with some hours of dancing to catchy, albeit quite familiar electro tunes in a night club just next door.

We took it easy the day after and eventually boarded a colectivo to Playa Zipolite some 5km further down the coast, a famous hippie hideaway, especially famous for its nude beach. Micha and I were just dropping out the water when we ran into Julie and Tim one final time. A good hour later we were already on our way to Pochutla where we got onto the night bus to Chiapas, having said farewell to Micha after a short, but splendid interlude. I can only hope that it won’t be too long until I see marvellous Oaxaca again.

Watching the sunset from our favorite viewpoint San Cristóbal de las Casas.

Watching the sunset from our favorite viewpoint San Cristóbal de las Casas.

Chiapas

A bunch of people who we met in Oaxaca recommended us the Puerta Vieja Hostel in San Cristóbal de las Casas and, as it turned out, that was indeed an excellent choice. We slept in an 18-bed dorm, spent a good amount of time in the hostel playing table tennis, had a superb vegan breakfast (even though I had to wait an eternity for it) and prepared a dead-cheap and supertasty dinner that was enough to fill our bellies a second night as well. On the evening of February 18 I booked my return flight to Europe (from Lima in Perú to Madrid in mid-May).

The day after, on our second sightseeing stroll, I once again ran into someone who recognised me from Couchsurfing – a Berlin-based traveler who just spent about a fortnight in Chiapas, most of the time in an area called El Panchán near the ancient city of Palenque.

Celebrating our 100th day on the road together.

Celebrating our 100th day on the road together.

Street wisdom in San Cristóbal de las Casas.

Street wisdom in San Cristóbal de las Casas.

Later, while cK had his beard trimmed at a local barber (who very sympathetically asked him all about the Berlin Wall, currently reading the ever-famous Diary of Anne Frank) I was buying myself a Spanish copy of Albert Camus’ El Extranjero (L’Étranger) and beginning to devour it on the city’s main square, the Plaza de la Paz when an old man was seating himself next to me, keeping me busy with eagerly asking a hundred questions. Quite enriching.

That night, coinciding with our 100th day on the road, there was a full moon party at the hostel and we happily indulged to the never-ending supply of utterly delicious mojitos that the owner himself was keen to distribute among the hostel guests. After some relaxing time in the hammocks we eventually found ourselves dancing with a group of British girls that caught my eye some hours before when still sitting on the city square answering the old man’s questions. There was a certain sense of extreme frivolity and excitement in the air that was about to burst any minute now – we clearly couldn’t have had a better time then right there, right then.

But we also had a bus to catch – as difficult as it was to break away from a rapture of pleasure and delight we actually managed to enter the night bus towards Palenque. The mojitos, unfortunately, as refreshing and enjoyable as they were, would now get back to us with a vengeance: When having a stop-over in the city of Tuxtla Gutiérrez the ADO personnel simply wouldn’t allow us to reenter the bus because we were to drunk (which manifested in varying degrees between the two of us). Either way, together with a traveler from Argentina (likely due to her foursquare persistence) I managed to obtain two new tickets to a follow-up coach and after another change into a smaller bus in Tabasco’s Villahermosa we finally arrived in Palenque in the early forenoon of February 20 – tired, exhausted, destroyed. After a short walk and a small, but energizing breakfast we hailed down a colectivo to the Zona Arqueología de Palenque.

The ruins of the forgotten city of Palenque.

The ruins of the forgotten city of Palenque.

WikiTravel writes about the ruins, they would “still evoke some of the wonders that the early Spanish visitors must have felt” when coming across the area – well, we were probably arriving a bit too late for that, but either way: due to generally rather late opening times (08am) that peculiar sensation of being an early-day explorer will be denied to even the keenest early bird. This is in strict contrast to the absolutely mesmerising experience in Guatemala’s Tikal where it was (at least in 2011) still possible to enter the ruins in early morning mist with just enough darkness, utterly undisturbed by the chatter of toured groups and, even more relieving, of the trash-selling vendors who can literally “ruin” the sensation – to my knowledge they are still prohibited in Tikal (my all-time favorite Maya city experience).

However, wandering along the temples, even in a rather doubtful bodily condition was a wonderful experience and utterly worth the 75 pesos (plus another 36 for the national park fee); unlike to what we were about to pay for upcoming temples on the Yucatan Peninsula (see below).

While walking to El Panchám.

While walking to El Panchám.

Since the Museo de Sitio is included in the entrance fee, we visited that also – despite being close to taking a nap lying on the ground behind some installations. Most impressive was probably the sarcophagus room (the tomb of ruler Pakal who was in power between 615 and 683).

On the way out of the National Park we paid a short visit to El Panchám, found it to be an attractive (hippie) place to while away a couple days and returned to the city of Palenque to buy groceries, use the supermarket’s wifi connection and to withdraw money that was calculated precisely to last for the remaining couple of days in México and then entered just another night bus towards the Yucatan.

Ancient (and once completely covered) Maya ruins at Ek Balam, just north of Valladolid (Yucatan).

Ancient (and once completely covered) Maya ruins at Ek Balam, just north of Valladolid (Yucatan).

Yucatan Peninsula

To claim I had a good night sleep would be pushing it, but I felt sufficiently arranged for another day of sightseeing – enter Mérida, capital of Yucatan State. It was early morning of February 21 and still being in the bus cK realised that he was being pickpocketed over night. Some sneaky asshole must have pulled out his bag, taken his new smartphone (freshly purchased in Hawai’i) and a good amount of the cash that we have just withdrawn a few hours earlier. Sweet morning, ya!

Luckily, cK still had his old phone ready in the backpack and we were soon out and about to explore the city. The bag drop within the ADO bus station was ridiculously expensive (a 100 pesos), so we were opting for a hotel and found one close to the center; the owner was a gem and since he didn’t ask for any money for keeping our luggage, I gave him a tip. Still in the hotel, cK noticed that they were also stealing his (cheapo) sunglasses from within the baggage compartment (which basically means that the ADO bus boys were responsible for it).

Art exhibition in Mérida, capital of the Yucatan.

Art exhibition in Mérida, capital of the Yucatan.

An endless sight of beautiful doors and windows in all colours and shapes...

An endless sight of beautiful doors and windows in all colours and shapes…

Mérida, despite boasting a population of about 850,000 people, has a rather compact city centre and we enjoyed discovering its treasures: art galleries, enchanting parks, an endless amount of picturesque doors and windows of a hundred colours, arty cafés and boutiques. After some hours of strolling around we hit the bus one more time and finally made it to Valladolid, some hours further to the east, the central city to a whole lot of Maya ruins and, even better, to an excellent selection of freshwater sinkholes, better known as cenotes.

There is quite a selection of hostels in town, but the prices vary strongly and we opted for a place called Guacamaya Hostel where we paid 300 pesos for a double bed (first time ever that we stayed in a sort of “double bed dormitory”). We shared the room with 4 other travelers from Argentina, none of whom spoke English (as was to be expected): 2 girls called Ana y María (one more klischee fulfilled) and two guys named Maximiliano and Jonathan, quite an interesting as well as amusing couple. We felt immediately comfortable in Valladolid and especially the central park (Parque Francisco Cantón Rosado) was a delight to walk around at after sunset.

Ancient ruins and the advantages of getting up early: not a single other soul in sight.

Ancient ruins and the advantages of getting up early: not a single other soul in sight.

After some intense consideration of where to go to see more Maya ruins we eventually decided against world-famous Chichen Itzá and for the much lesser known Ek Balam site – not an easy decision: While the temples around Chichen Itzá are surely stunning and breath-taking we also didn’t feel like tourist groups and vendors and then there was Ek Balam popping up which was almost as expensive as the C.I., but featured a pyramid on top of an ‘acropolis’ that one was actually allowed to ascent. The die was cast.

We actually managed to be the first two visitors in Ek Balam (originally known as Talol) and had to wait about 30min until it was finally 08:00. When we were there they charged us 413 pesos for the entrance (which is heaps even for European standards), but expect to pay even more in the upcoming months and years. Nevertheless, the view from atop the pyramid, the lack of tourists and vendors, the ability to freely climb around before any security shows up and also the abundance of iguanos on and around the temples was actually worth it. Also, there is a cenote close-by (and it happened to be the first one we ever visited – hooray!). To visit that one, though, you’ll be charged another 50 pesos. Still, worth it.

We later hitchhiked back to town and visited Valladolid’s city cenote (for a very acceptable 30 pesos entrance fee) which was clearly worth every minute. This whole cenote business is actually worth a blog post in its own right since their story of origin is so fascinating.

cK watching an iguana lazily chilling in the shades in Ek Balam...

cK watching an iguana lazily chilling in the shades in Ek Balam…

...before jumping down inside the cenote nearby.

…before jumping down inside the cenote nearby.

The last stop on our Méxican journey was the town of Tulum, some two hours south of Cancún in the state of Quintana Roo. There is not much to say about that last bit: The place is acceptable, but I wouldn’t think of returning there: It’s packed with tourists (mostly U.S. Americans, but also bunches of Argentinians and Europeans), the cenotes are utterly overprized and the beaches mediocre. It was an okay place to spend our last night at before hopping on the plane from Cancún to La Habana on the Communist island of Cuba. But that’s another story – waiting to be told while sitting in a Viazul bus making its way to Santiago from the pretty town of Camagüey.

Last view on México while on the plane towards La Habana, Cuba.

Last view on México while on the plane towards La Habana, Cuba.

Costs

Not surprisingly, México was second in line when it comes to costs: much cheaper then Hawai’i, but also clearly more expensive than Indonesia, Malaysia and Vietnam (plus Thailand and Myanmar, even though I haven’t tracked the details for that trip).