Thursday, 23 July 2015

Cancun, Part 9, Leaving Mexico

Cancun, Mexico, January 2015

Leaving Mexico

So every holiday will come to an end. So did ours. We had booked one-way tickets from Cancun to Helsinki via Manchester through Condor. I had never heard of such an agency, but it's a good thing that we did, it turns out. Because there is an exit fee when you're leaving Mexico. Normally most airlines will automatically include this in the ticket fee, and there's no hassle at all. However, our flight to Manchester was operated by Thomas Cook Airlines, which mostly handles package holidays (you can imagine the sort of package holiday people from an industrial town in England that the plane was filled with!), and apparently Thomas Cook is one of the only two operators that do not include the exit tax in their prices, the other being Thomson, I believe. So you'd have to pay that at the airport when you depart. And for some reason this exit tax is 800 pesos ($54 or €47), which is massive high and in no way representative what the normal taxes included in an airline ticket amount for. So somebody somewhere is doing business, it seems.

Anyway, we were extremely lucky in that we had booked our flights through Condor, a German operator, that does include these taxes in their pricing. Therefore just by showing our Condor reservation confirmation at the Thomas Cook tax line we could get past them without paying.

But our return home wasn't to be that simple. Oh no no no. The airline officer behind the counter failed to acknowledge that we had bought tickets all the way to Helsinki. When we pointed this out, he said that we have to get our tickets to Helsinki from Manchester airport. Ok, fair enough, this is a common practice so I thought nothing of it, but when he gave us the tags for our luggage, they had only been checked in until Manchester. We asked about this, and he said that we'd have to pick them up there and check them in again. Now this would be a massive problem, because Len is a Russian citizen and doesn't have a visa for the UK. So it would be impossible for her to through the passport control to the baggage claim. We explained our issue to several airline workers and finally the boss of the boss of the boss or something understood the issue and checked in our baggage all the way to Helsinki.

In the middle of this hassle my printed booking confirmation was left behind in the possession of the airline worker and I only realised this once we had passed the security. Doesn't matter, I thought, you never need the printed confirmation anyway, your passport is always enough. Wrong again. When we reached Manchester airport we of course walked towards the transit area to have our boarding passes to Helsinki printed. But for some reason Manchester airport has a security check before the transit desk. And they ask for travel documents there. I'm not quite sure how that is supposed to make sense, but there we were, stuck in security without the printed confirmation that was left behind in Mexico. Luckily I remembered that I still have the confirmation somewhere hidden in my email account. After struggling to get the airport Wi-Fi to work on my phone, I finally managed to find it and we passed the security. Surely we'd be fine now. Nope.

There was a huge line for the transit desk and one person working behind it. The whole crew seemed to be at a loss and didn't appear to know what they were doing. It took at least 10-15 minutes to figure out the boarding passes for each passenger, and they were also allowing people with earlier flights to pass everyone else in the line (understandably so, but this also meant that our comfortable layoff of more than three hours started to seem short). Finally we got to the counter. "Sorry, you're flying with Finnair, I'm not trained for the system they use." So our only option was to leave our details with another airline worker and make our way to the gate to have our boarding passes printed. Only there was no information about the gate. We just had to wait. Less than 40 minutes before the flight was scheduled to leave, and we're there with no boarding passes and no idea which end of the airport the flight will be leaving from.

But all's well that ends well. We made our flight and managed to reach Helsinki fine. Just an example of the frustration that travelling can sometimes bring along it. But hey, it makes decent stories later on and you can laugh about it later on! And there's never been any problem too big. That's why travelling is so rewarding.

P.S. Don't fly with Thomas Cook, they ask for money even for water and the majority of the movies they show on their flights. We managed to get free glass of water "from the back" by asking nicely, but otherwise they'd sell you a water bottle.

Sunday, 19 July 2015

Cancun, Part 8, Safety

Cancun, Mexico, January 2015


So you've heard all the stories about Mexico, drugs, cartels and violence, haven't you? So had we. But Cancun is usually not included in the list of places that people warn about. And that is for a very good reason: Cancun is safe. And I'm not talking about "stay in the Hotel zone" -type of safety. I'm talking "walking home from bar through small alleys" -safe.

Our hotel, as mentioned before, was located on Lopez Portillo. In many places online this area is already listed as don't-go-neighbourhood for some reason. Maybe it was the molotov cocktail attack on a local bar some 1,5 kilometres from our hotel that happened like five or six years ago? Maybe. In the same time frame there have been some nightclub murders including firearms and what-not in my current hometown of Helsinki in Finland, and nobody would describe it as a no-go zone. It's all about the mental images.

That said... (Well, you always knew that there was going to be a "that-said", surely) The areas north from Lopez Portillo can be intimidating. It's true. Lopez Portillo is basically the line between the downtown (tourists, restaurants, bars, shopping malls) and the uptown (locals and poverty). In fact the local lifestyle can easily be spotted even a bit south from Lopez Portillo. Our shortcut took us through these rougher areas. And still we never ever felt unsafe for a second, even after dark. We did not wander off too much north of Lopez Portillo simply because there seemed to be nothing interesting there. Small alleys and shabby houses; seeing the de facto poverty yourself; if you're into that kind of thing, knock yourself out. It's unlikely you'd end up being dumped on a roadside somewhere outside Cancun with a "Colombian necktie".

Don't drink the tap water. That's just common sense. Lucky for you, the Mexican bottled water is actually delicious. No, seriously, it tastes awesome!

To be continued...

Friday, 3 July 2015

Cancun, Part 7, Tours

Cancun, Mexico, January 2015


You can not walk around the Hotel zone without seeing all the tourist agencies offering tours to various locations in and around Cancun. You have your trips to Isla Mujeres, Tulum and several other places. We decided that we would like to experience some history while we were there, so a trip to the Mayan ruins of Chichen Itza would be our tour of choice. We took a look at a few agencies which were all basically offering the same tour, which would visit the town of Valladolid, a Mayan "village", Chichen Itza and stop for a swim in a cenote called Ik Kil.

The prices varied greatly. There were agencies that would offer the tour for quite cheap, but would also require us to participate in a timeshare presentation. I've seen the South Park episode about this, so I was less than keen on doing that! So we opted for a more expensive option and paid $50 for the tour. We did see people who had paid $40 and as little as $25 for the same tour (don't know if these prices come with the timeshare presentation though), so a little price comparison would probably be in order.

We had to wake up at six in the morning and make our way to the travel agency in downtown before seven. We were picked up by a bus, taken to the Hotel Zone, where all the people going on different tours were taken to stand in line and get their tickets before being showed to their respective busses. Reminded me of a school field trip. Where was the buddy system?

On the road towards Valladolid there is nothing to see. Absolutely nothing. So sleeping would be a good option. Sleeping through Valladolid as well wouldn't be too much of a shame either. The town, whereas it does possess some historical value in terms of the Spanish building it as soon as they arrived, for a European tourist it's basically just another town with just another church. Just in a different continent. Of course compared to the new buildings of Cancun it is a different world, granted.

Inside a Valladolid church

Commemorative plates

The next stop would be at the Mayan "village", as our guide would call it. Having tried to sell us personalised Mayan calendars for $20 in the bus we were to find out that the village was in fact a souvenir shop run by the Mayans. Fair enough, they get money from tourists this way and that is all good and well. We were also offered lunch at this location, some tacos and chicken legs. Drinks not included in the price. The stingier people among our group just swallowed their meals without having even a sip of water to go along it. And do remember to bring your own water bottles with you, it is hot in Yucatan, even in the middle of winter!

We finally arrived at Chichen Itza in early afternoon. We were told to skip the long line at the entrance and meet our guides inside the gates. At least that's what they told us. I'm pretty sure that's what we were supposed to do. Maybe. So we skipped the line and were the first ones to reach our guides. But the other were so much slower than us, that I'm not sure whether they misheard the instructions or if we did. Nah, I'm pretty sure it must have been all of the others!

Chichen Itza is probably the most well-known Mayan archaeological site and for a good reason. It was the focal point of Mayan civilisation throughout the pre-Colombian era from circa 600 to 1200, before its eventual decline, and it was subsequently left derelict until the turn of the 20th century. Today it has been restored quite nicely (the main pyramid is fully restored on two sides and left untouched on the other two. According to our guide this was because they couldn't find enough stones to restore everything due to looting by the locals).

Speaking of the guide, he was actually quite good with a lot of knowledge and some interesting stories about the site, including the most interesting stuff about the Mesoamerican ballgame. You know, the one where the losers will be killed, I'm sure you've heard of it. The ritualistic sacrifices both on top of the pyramid and in the depths of the sacrificial cenote also made an interesting tale to hear. I can definitely recommend Chichen Itza for everyone interested in Mayan history.

Chitzen Itza

The large pyramid from its better side
Some wall
So if you were naughty, you'd be thrown in here

However, it was not all just great fun. There were a couple of things that were not perfect about the pace. Firstly, we felt like we didn't have enough time to explore the entire area. After the guided part was over, we only had some 45 minutes to go and search the different parts by ourselves. In a perfect world this should have been at least double that time. Also, the massive crowds of tourists have given birth to a souvenir shack phenomenon. "One dollar, very cheap, honeymoon price!" can be heard everywhere, up to the point when it actually gets a bit annoying. And did I mention it is hot out there? We had no hats and only a small amount of water, so we definitely should have planned this out better.

So off we went to the last destination of our tour. The Ik Kil cenote. So those of you that don't speak Spanish might have been wondering what a cenote is. Well, it's basically an underground river that has collapsed and formed a sort of water-filled hole on the ground. And this one was made into a swimming pool of sorts. Of course we had to dip in to have a small swim around.

Now, a couple of things you should probably know. The water beneath you is deep. It's very deep. Not only are you some 20-30 metres underground already, but there will be further 50 metres of deep blue river water underneath your feet while you splash around. So don't drop your locker key in the water. This is also a river, so there are fish. The tickling feeling on your feet? That's a fish. Small one, granted, but a living animal nonetheless. These are the same kind of fish you might have encountered in one beauty parlours eating the dead skin off your feet. And thirdly, and this is the most important one, there are a lot of people around you. If you arrive on a tour bus, all of the people in your bus and several others will try and get a taste of the whole cenote experience at the same time, so it is very crowded. And people can panic, if they are not the strongest swimmers, given all of the abovementioned factors. They do rent out life vests, so they can be a smart idea if you have a tendency to panic in the water. That said, mere 15 minutes after the biggest bus tour rush hour, the cenote was already practically empty. So time your swim well. And do go for a swim, it is stunningly beautiful down there!

Swim, my pretties, swim

Roots, roots everywhere

Like a kindergarten trip to the local swimming pool

Midway down the cenote
 To be continued...

Sunday, 14 June 2015

Cancun, Part 6, Isla Mujeres

Cancun, Mexico, January 2015
Isla Mujeres

The highlight of our trip was our visit to Isla Mujeres. It's an island located some 25-minute ferry ride away from Cancun. There are a few places where you can reach it, namely the Playa Tortugas and Playa Caracol at the Hotel Zone, or Puerto Juárez, if you're staying in downtown. The latter is noticeably cheaper, mind; the ferry from Playa Tortugas or Playa Caracol is $19 for a roundtrip, whereas Puerto Juárez is 146 pesos ($9,80). The ferry company is called Ultramar. The trip can be a bumpy one if the sea is rough and we got wet sitting on the deck. However, there was live music!

Isla Mujeres can be divided roughly to two areas: the more touristy north part and the quieter south. The main attraction to the south is probably MUSA (Museo Subacuático de Arte), an underwater art museum, where you can snorkel or scuba-dive down to see underwater statues. As cool as that sounded, we simply didn't have the time and/or the money to do it this time. So we opted for the north part and its sandy beaches and clear waters.

The beach

More of the beach

We found a spot with two beach chairs and a parasol. 220 pesos ($14,77) for two chairs for the entire day seemed like a bit steep, but what can you do? A Dave Hester -lookalike, even wearing his trademarked YUUUP! - hat took our money, saying he "didn't have the change right now", so he would be right back. Later I had to go and search for the guy to get my change, and I bet this is not an isolated incident. But when in Rome... The beach had a two bars serving it, and even a full kitchen. We ordered some shrimps and tacos to enjoy while at the beach. You can't beat the ambiance!


More of the beach...

Isla Mujeres is quite a small island, really, and the touristy part of the north is relatively small with still a decent number of restaurants, bars and hotels. We took the most out of the island on our day trip, visiting a few restaurants to have a nice steak or two and feast on some sea snails. We also simply had to try tequila in Mexico. It's a must. However, we definitely overpaid for them, since the (sea snail) restaurant only offered an expensive for of tequila for 77 pesos each, whereas the cheap bar next to it had an offer of two beers for 40 pesos with two tequilas for free! So if you're not too fussy about the quality, you might want to look out for such offers. We also could buy beers to go and sipped them on the already dark beach, going for moonlight swims every now and then. To quote Marta: "This is the island I've been searching for."

To be continued...

Thursday, 11 June 2015

Cancun, Part 5, Beaches

Cancun, Mexico, January 2015

The best beaches are supposed to be in the Hotel Zone. It's best to do some research beforehand, though. We simply checked the map and aerial image and went to the closest thing to us that looked like a beach, close to the Puerto Juárez harbour. It did have some exclusive resorts there with private beaches (I suppose we were trespassing), but their quality was very poor to be honest. Lots of seaweed, not very nice sand and so on. That taught us a lesson that proper googling is required for the desired outcome.

We did enjoy a lovely day at the beach in Isla Mujeres, but more about that later on. We didn't really get a good look at the beaches at the Hotel Zone. They are supposed to be extremely nice, but also the waves are said to be very big. The beaches are facing the open sea, so the waves have a clear access to reach the unassuming swimmers. Now this might be a good or a bad thing, depending on your preferences. There are some beaches that are more protected and better-suited for families, however. But don't wander off to the other side: the lagoon between Cancun downtown and the Hotel Zone is inhabited by crocodiles. And not just "those tiny cute ones", but actually the "horrible big ones". There are warning signs all over and a few croc attacks have been reported over the years. Though this is nothing to be overly concerned about, it's still a good thing to keep in mind, when playing golf for example.

Not the best beach in town

Keep in mind that during the spring break the Hotel Zone is filled with American students. Quite literally girls gone wild. During that time it is probably not the best place for families with smaller children. The Hotel Zone is filled with nightclubs, bars and even the odd pub or two to keep the party going 24/7. So if you feel at home in the parties in Sunny Beach or Ibiza, maybe Cancun during the spring break would be right up your alley? Beach, sun, parties and drunk people.

To be continued...

Cancun, Part 4, Getting Around

Cancun, Mexico, January 2015
Getting Around

Cancun has a local bus system that one can use to get around. The routes R-1 and R-2 are basically the ones that most tourists would need, as they go through the Hotel Zone and all the way to the north of Cancun via the centre. There are bus stops, but in the centre the busses seemed to just stop where ever people would flag them down, so we went along with that. The fare to the hotel zone was 10,5 pesos (not sure about the other busses which don't go there, they might be cheaper). You simply pay the driver, nothing mystical about this. Also getting off is as simple as pressing a button. The same as pretty much anywhere else in the world. So don't be afraid of the busses.

As for taxis, first of all, don't count on them speaking English. It might be because we only took taxis in the downtown area, but we only stumbled upon one driver that spoke English. Luckily my Spanish is veeeeery good... Meaning two beginners courses at the university almost ten years ago. You also need to agree upon a price with the driver beforehand, so knowing your numbers in Spanish is definitely needed. The highest price we paid was $4 from the bus station to our hotel (the driver had to stop and check the address on the way), and the lowest was 25 pesos (about $1,70) from the hotel to the Puerto Juárez harbour, which is actually a longer way than the most expensive route we took.

The taxi drivers, as I mentioned before, didn't recognise our hotel's name. And Cancun doesn't really have proper addresses, or at least I'm having a hard time interpreting them ("Av. Lopez Portillo y Torcasita, sm63, mz22 L-11" was our hotel's address for example, and the fish restaurant Ciego, which I promoted earlier, had written down theirs simply as: "Av. Nader esquina con Rubia | a una cuadra de av. uxmal"). Put that on your GPS, will ya?

There was one time at the harbour when the only taxi present refused to takes us to our hotel for the amount of money we offered him and just took off. This was quite late in the evening, but we still decided to start walking back to our hotel (some three kilometres). We tried to catch a taxi on the way, but to our surprise the car (not a taxi) that stopped was a well-groomed middle-aged man, who just wanted to practice his English and give us a lift. Despite all the warnings against hopping on private cars of people you don't know, we decided to go on and accept the offer for a ride. And lo and behold: nothing bad happened! He took us all the way to the hotel, even though it was not even on his way and refused to accept any money from us. His reward ended up being a shy kiss on the cheek (not from me!).

To be continued...

Sunday, 31 May 2015

Cancun, Part 3, Food

Cancun, Mexico, January 2015

One of the first things you think of when you think of Mexico, is naturally the Mexican food. Tacos, burritos, ceviche etc. Cancun has a wide variety of choices: you have your Burger King, McDonald's and Buppa Gump, if you're into that, and yes you guessed it: these are mostly found in the Hotel Zone. Then you also have the small restaurants selling mostly tacos and the likes, which can be very tasty, and not necessarily at all spicy, if you're worried about that, since you get to build your own taco from the ingredients they bring to you.

But what we went all in for, was sea food. Despite the first cockteleria/cevicheria -type restaurant in the rather outskirts of the town that we tried was a bit... strange. The house in itself was a sight to behold. A building resembling a garage, in lack of a better word, covered in murals of all kinds. Inside the walls were covered in paintings of mermaids and topless white, blonde women... The plastic table and chairs seemed to be a bit sticky. The music was on full volume, we were the only customers and the waitresses were rather odd. The first thing they offered us when we ordered beers to drink, for example, was their special offer of ten beers for some "amazing" price. Hmm, I think ten beers might be a bit much to go with your lunch around noon... We did however order a wide range of seafood, from soup to a plate of fish and ceviche mixto. Ceviche, the raw seafood "cooked" in lime juice, was an interesting experience. It was alright for the most part and didn't cause us an upset stomach (this didn't happen at all for neither of us, which was unlike Mexico's reputation would have lead us to believe), but there was a mystery creature there with very strange gristly texture. We never could identify what this sea monster was, that we were eating.

Having decided to steer clear of ceviche, the seafood options were still plentiful and we ate more prawns than anywhere before. Basically every day. One seafood restaurant was the pick of the bunch: El Pescado Ciego on Avenue Carlos Nader. Wonderful seafood soup, amazing tuna, nice tacos, good seafood pasta with a whole crab... We just kept ordering more and more as we ate.


Seafood soup

Pasta with some crab

Mmmm... more prawns...

Around the Parque de las Palapas in the centre of the old town there are many restaurants and bars to choose from. We mostly stayed outside of this area, but we did try out one of the places there as well. Pescaditos, a seafood place (what else?), was our choice. Sampling their offerings, they were mostly just regular, but the charm of the place came in the form of a three-metre-tall puppeteer in front of the entrance trying to lure tourists in. And seemed like it was successful, seeing that there were some foreign girls inside getting a lot of attention and free alcohol from some local playboys... Luckily for everyone the girls ended up leaving without the guys.

Tacos then, lime juice, coriander (or cilantro if you like), guacamole and the optional hot sauce to compliment your choice of meat. Mmmm, awesome! My favourite was arrachera which translates to skirt steak, if I'm not mistaken. A seldom-used cut of meat in Europe, but rather tasty one. However, al pastor style tacos, similar to döner kebab or gyros, which was brought to Mexico by Lebanese immigrants, proved to be a bit over-hyped for me, which was a real shame.

To be continued...