Archive for ‘January, 2013’

Swimming with Dolphins

Today’s Itinerary

Luxury, you say? I’ll see your luxury and I’ll raise you -…

In the world of hotels, there’s luxury that’s, you know, pretty good, and then there’s luxury that is a step above. The line is hard to describe but easy to see – like good art.

At the Dreams Resort in Cancun, we’ve experienced heavenly comfort after a bus ride that’s best forgotten, and after following that up with a wild night out in Cancun. We’ve had our pick of restaurants ( from freshly-caught freshly-cooked seafood to Japanese and authentic Mexican), massaged out some of the kinks, relaxed on the beach.

We’ve even had unlimited WiFi, which doesn’t seem like much until you look around a bit and see how much hotels gouge people for Internet access.

So this counts as pretty good luxury. But then they stepped up to the plate, and knocked this baby right out of the park.

Gird your loins people.

Swimming with a dolphin is one of the greatest things you will ever do

It’s still kinda hard to believe this. Right outside our room, there’s a pool that contains dolphins. Actual dolphins. Real, live, actual dolphins.

And we get to go swimming with them.

As Australians, dolphins have this almost mythical place in our collective folklore. You never know when you’re going to spot them, and even when you do you can never be sure how long they’ll hang around. But sometimes, just sometimes, when the surf is pounding and the sun is on it’s way up or heading back down, you may be fortunate enough to spend a magical half an hour watching them seemingly enjoy catching the waves. They’ll ride the bow, flip up out of the surf, sometimes even come close enough to get a really good look at them – and then they’re gone.

Most of the time you’re lucky if the view you get is even this close.

Photo by Steve Jurvetson, Licensed under CC.

Photo by Steve Jurvetson, Licensed under CC.

Every time you’re in the ocean you hope to see and experience that natural beauty.

So today is a very, very special day. We not only get to swim with dolphins, we get to play with them, get a kiss from a dolphin, and even get pushed around by them (in a good way).

Photo by Steve Jurvetson, Licensed under CC.

Photo by Steve Jurvetson, Licensed under CC.

Dreams Resort in Cancun, partnered with Delphinus World, offer these incredible experiences. There’s several types of swimming with dolphins experiences, including large groups (~10 people), small groups (~4 people), couples, and even one on one sessions lasting one hour.

Imagine being able to spend that much time with an animal reputed to be amongst the most intelligent in the animal kingdom, capable of swimming through  the water at up to 40 miles per hour (so fast that it hurts) and that can send thoughts to one another using sonar.

Photo by Patrik Jones, Licensed under CC.

Photo by Patrik Jones, Licensed under CC.

Travel Tip:

Book your dolphin swim experience online and receive a 15% discount. Awesome!

Two hard to beat experiences in the same day

Swimming with dolphins is by far the most incredible thing we could accomplish today. No one would begrudge us if we went back to our luxury hotel and just lay on the pool deck, smiling all afternoon.

That’s an option, sure. But then we’d miss out on figuring out what these Cenote things are – everyone’s talking about them. How do they work?

So we’re headed out of Cancun, down towards a place called Tulum, on the recommendation of one of our Twitter followers (do you

It’s about a two hour drive, so that gives us plenty of time to mull over just how great it is to actually, finally, really swim with a dolphin. Gosh – they even pushed us through the water!

A Cenote is the best kind of hole in the ground

“Cenotes are surface connections to subterranean water bodies”. Thanks, Wikipedia!

In addition, Cenotes are pretty amazing places to jump in for a swim. Natural sinkholes full of filtered water, they’re dotted along the countryside, and Tulum happens to feature some of the nicest ones.

Photo by Adam Baker, Licensed under CC.

Photo by Adam Baker, Licensed under CC.

So – swimmers on (again). Time for a quick dip!

Photo by Mike Milley, Licensed under CC.

Photo by Mike Milley, Licensed under CC.

Overnight in Tulum

Photo by dMap Travel Guide, Licensed under CC.

Photo by dMap Travel Guide, Licensed under CC.

There’s plenty to do in and around Tulum after our quick swim, including exploring ancient ruins and relaxing on a very chilled beach scene. We organise our accommodation early on (best not to get stuck with some of the shady-looking places).

When the tourist buses head out of town by the late afternoon, we make sure you get on up to the ruins at Tulum Ruinas.

We enjoy a perfectly relaxing end to a record-setting day, watching the sun setting and the waves lapping the shore, wondering if there are dolphins frolicking just out of sight.

Travel Tip for Tulum

Make sure you check inside before confirming your place and paying – some of the facilities are a lot less salubrious on the inside. And watch your credit card – better yet, make sure you’ve got cash.

Photo by Manuel Canela, Licensed under CC.

Photo by Manuel Canela, Licensed under CC.

Underwater Art Gallery Cancun

Bleary-eyed, shattered, and mostly numb, we stumble off the overnight bus we took to get from Belize to Cancun, Mexico. It was a long, cold, dull, sleep-deprivation-chamber-on-wheels, and we’re just done. First priority – sleep.

Cancun, we love your beautiful beaches, we want to explore your crystal clear cenotes, and we definitely want to party.

After we nap.

Today’s Itinerary

  • Catch up on some sleep at out luxury Cancun resort
  • Scuba dive an underwater art museum
  • Dive into Cancun’s nightlife

O blessed sleep, where art thou?

We arrive in Playa de Carmen somewhere around five in the morning. Fortunately, we’ve arranged for a local car to pick us up, because after crossing the border into Mexico at 11 PM and another unscheduled stop at midnight, coupled with bumpy roads and overly friendly passengers, we’re experiencing a coma of sorts.

Just picking up our luggage from underneath the bus takes a herculean effort, and where does this strap go? Do all these buckles have to be done up? Why am I sitting on the ground?

Helpfully, not all of us are completely catatonic and, although it’s a small miracle, soon we’re bundled into the car and pulling up into our resort.

In this state, it all seems like a bit of a dream. Everything is dark and quiet, and without paying too much attention we’re in a warm bed and fast asleep.

At midday, we awake to this.

White Sand Beach Cancun

White Sand Beach Cancun. Photo by adpowers, CC License

We must be dreaming

Several weeks ago, when it became clear just how painful the bus ride from Belize to Cancun was going to be, we elected to spend a couple of days in a resort recuperating (yes, it’s a hard life).

That decision has paid many dividends.

We decided to stay at the the Dreams Resort in Cancun, midway between Cancun and Playa de Carmen. Reluctantly opening the curtains, eyes shielded from the midday sun, we are greeted by vistas like this.

Beautiful white sand beaches stretch along the coast. There’s a pleasant ocean breeze coming in off the Gulf, and the lick of white racing up and down the line of the sand shows us where we should be – in the water.

And we’ve got something special planned.

There’s time for a quick brunch and then we’re in a taxi into Cancun, to arrive at the Scuba Cancun Dive Centre ( Blvd Kukulcan Km 5, Zona Hotelera, 77500, Cancún).

We’re going to get us some culture and visit an underwater art gallery.

An underwater art gallery, you say?

There are words in the English language that go together. ‘Bacon’ and ‘eggs’, ‘sea’ and ‘sand’, ‘endless’ and ‘vacation’ (well, those two should). Some words that don’t really belong together are ‘underwater’ and ‘art gallery’. Yet here we are.

This is an incredibly ambitious project with an interesting goal at heart – to drive people away from visiting coral reefs. With around 750,000 tourists visiting local coral reefs, as the artist explained in this National Geographic interview;

That puts a lot of pressure on the existing reefs…So part of this project is to actually discharge those people away from the natural reefs and bring them to an area of artificial reefs.

The project, which features statues made by Mexican artist Jason deCaires Taylor, began in 2009 and will ultimately ‘exhibit’ 400 sculptures.

Watching this video (embedded below), we can only feel how eerie this must have felt. Those statues, clean and solid, don’t belong there under the water.

They stand their, eyes closed, awaiting their fates? Contemplating the infinite? Praying for salvation?

Underwater Art Museum

Underwater Art Museum. Photo by Jason deCaires Taylor – visit www.jasondecairestaylor.com for more incredible pictures. Reproduced here with permission of the artist.

The contrast between the bright colours of the fish and natural coral formations oppose the grey, solid humanity that the statues convey. But over time, the power of nature to transform and adapt becomes apparent, as life, ever-growing, explores the surfaces made by man and makes them its own. The sculptures become a part of the reef, previously ravaged by storms, supporting life where previously there was none.

From Life to Art to Reef

Silent Evolution. Amazing photo series by Jason deCaires Taylor – visit www.jasondecairestaylor.com for more incredible pictures. Reproduced here with permission of the artist.

Around 30 feet underwater, we’re taken on a scuba tour of the underwater art gallery. Down on the ocean floor, amongst these people frozen in time, is a truly unforgettable experience.

Scuba Dive Tour of the Underwater Art Gallery

Caffeine up, people. It’s time to party.

The easiest thing to do right now would be fall asleep on the beach or to crawl back into the luxurious bed at our Cancun resort. We deserve it – that bus ride was pretty bad.

Photo by A. Strakey, Licensed under CC.

Photo by A. Strakey, Licensed under CC.

But buckle up people – grab your Red Bull, grab your double espresso, gulp down those No Doze – stay awake! For tonight – we party in Cancun.

Photo by cezzie901, Licensed under CC.

Coco Bongo – looks tame by day, but by night…Photo by cezzie901, Licensed under CC.

Frommer’s said “you have to experience it to believe it”

Coco Bongo Spiderman

Coco Bongo Spiderman. Photo by Abeeeer, CC License

As they said in ancient Rome – linea longa, bonum festum (don’t quote us on that).

With that principle in mind, Coco Bongo is the place to go if you want to experience the craziness and sheer audacity of the party scene in Cancun.

Frommer’s, in their review, said “you have to experience it to believe it”. A madcap remix of incoherent popular cliches like Austin Powers and Spiderman, combined with pyrotechnics, lightshows, smoke machines, and dancing everywhere possible – take their advice.

Photo by Vitor D'Agnoluzzo, Licensed under CC.

Photo by Vitor D’Agnoluzzo, Licensed under CC.

Photo by Vitor D'Agnoluzzo, Licensed under CC.

Photo by Vitor D’Agnoluzzo, Licensed under CC.

We’re still trying to wrap our head around it.

Coco Bongo Beetlejuice!

Coco Bongo Beetlejuice! Photo by Abeeeer, CC License

See a Jaguar in Belize

By Jacob Aldridge

Today’s Itinerary

How did you sleep last night? It’s hard to be fully rested when you know there are jaguars (and 4 other big cat species) wandering around outside – every rustle, every noise, makes you wonder what’s happening.

How many jaguars are left in Belize?

Less than 800 – will we see one? Photo by Eric Terdal, CC License

Whichever genius in the everydaydream holiday group brought ingredients for a cooked breakfast deserves to be knighted! What a fantastic start to a Tuesday that will involve a lot of hiking and swimming in our quest to experience the Cockscomb Basin Wildlife Sanctuary (where we arrived last night).

There’s no fixed location in the 128,000 acre sanctuary where you are guaranteed to see jaguars (or any of the other big cats – Puma, Ocelot, Jaguarundi, or Margay). Rather than wander aimlessly and hope, we’ve planned a day that will be a lot of fun even if the cats stay away.

Jaguar Crossing Sign

Of course, there’s no guarantee they will cross while you wait! Photo by ambertq, CC License

Our main destination is Tiger Fern falls, actually two waterfalls that are an easy-enough walk through the sanctuary. We reach the first not long after the heat of the day sets in, so it’s a blissful hour spent swimming here. Cockscomb (named after the nearby mountain that looks like a rooster’s comb) is not exactly a secret, but it’s hardly an easy tourist destination to access. Add to that remoteness the sheer size of the sanctuary, and it’s entirely possible to spend a few days camping and hiking here without coming across another human. Certainly, our swim feels more like a private experience than a public pool.

Waterfall Swimming! Photo by ambertq, CC License

Waterfall Swimming! Photo by ambertq, CC License

We turn, and begin the hike (via a different path) back out. Naturalists (not to be confused with Naturists especially when travelling) are confident that there remain many undiscovered species within the Cockscomb Basic, particularly in the harder to access West Basin. There’s every chance our group could be the first people in the world to spot a specific species of butterfly or plant – although, unless you’re a botanist with Central American expertise, I doubt you’ll know it when you see it!

And just when we begin to feel that this trip – amazing as it has been – would end without spotting a big cat, there one is. The jaguar is only outgrown by the lions of Africa and the Tigers of Asia – it’s large, gorgeous, endangered (hence the sanctuary), and intimidating even as it moves softly through the jungle some way off the path. It feels almost rude to photograph the cat, infringing as we are upon his preserve. For the few moments he (and, based on the size, it’s definitely a male) is visible, our whole group feels like they’re holding their breath – nobody wants to disturb the moment.

What's that through those trees?

JAGUAR! Photo by Brian Fagan, CC License

And that’s the moment we will hold with us tonight. Probably for longer, but definitely for tonight as we embark on another Central American overnight bus experience. Last weekend we boarded in a city and ended on a tropical paradise; and tonight will be the same, as we don a cardigan and climb aboard the notoriously chilly overnight bus from Belize City to Cancun, Mexico.

Want to go? Need to know!

Does anybody think we spent too little time in Belize City? What are your tips for long bus rides? Share them with the world in the comments below.

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Waving the Flag in Belize City

By Jacob Aldridge

Today’s Itinerary

There’s something special about starting a new day on island. Even when you know the plan is to head back to the mainland (and we have a mid-morning water taxi back to Belize City), it really does feel like you are completely separated from any worldly concerns you may have. Caye Caulker, off the cost of Belize, certainly feels that way.

Belize City boats

Lobster Boats in the harbour of Belize City. Photo by Roger4336, CC License

Our first destination after the water taxi delivers us to Belize City (and we walk across the manually controlled Swing Bridge) is the Museum of Belize, an opportunity to brush up on our history (not really) and see inside the former prison cells (really). The permanent exhibits here are a juxtaposition of the English colony (stamps and coins for example) and the much older indigenous history of the region (Maya Masterpieces is a must).

The history of Belize is emblazoned on their national flag, and the imagery there is so rich that their flag contains more colours than the flag of any other nation (12 in total, the next nearest is 9). And the flag forms a highlight in the Museum tour, where you can see a torn and dirty example that was found in the ruins of the World Trade Centre, after the attacks of September 11, 2001.

Unlike the neighbouring Guatemala which was properly settled by the Spanish conquistadors in the 16th Century, Belize was controlled as a British Colony from 1862 to 1981; English remains the official language. So when someone in Guatemala says “look at the Colonial buildings”, expect to see ruins and bungalows up to 400 years old (oh, and they’ll probably say “mirar los edificios coloniales”); when someone in Belize says “look at the Colonial buildings”, expect grand houses from the mid 1800s!

Government House Belize City

Government House, a Belize House of Culture. Photo by Roger4336, CC License

One such example is today’s Government House, originally built in 1815 and opened to the public as an event venue in 1998. There are art exhibits on display here, but our visit is from the outside and as an opportunity to feel some more of Central America’s varied history. Continuing the flag theme, it was here in 1981 that Belize’s national flag was official raised for the first time.

And take a look at the brick Cathedral of St John across the road – it’s the oldest Anglican Church in Central America. (Which, to be fair, is a bit like pointing out the oldest Mayan Temple in Great Britain.)

And then, surprise surprise, there’s another bus trip to enjoy! (Experience? Survive? If you missed our tips for long bus rides, you can read them here.) This one is not so bad, 3.5 hours from Belize City in the direction of Punta Gorda. We’re travelling with James Bus Lines – and while they’re excellent, we can’t say the same for the roads!

We’re delighted to be exiting the bus, and just in time to grab our tickets at the Maya Center adjacent to (well, a $US15 taxi ride from) the Cockscomb Basin Wildlife Sanctuary.

Welcome to Cockscombe Basin Wildlife Sanctuary

Welcome to Cockscombe Basin. Photo by ambertq, CC License

This sanctuary protects all five of Belize’s big cats: Jaguar, Puma, Ocelot, Jaguarundi, and Margay. While coming out here meant extra time in a bus, it was well worth it as we settle into our ‘White House’ accommodation within the Cockscomb Basin. There’s just enough time as the sun sets to cook our dinner in the kitchen provided, and base ourselves on the screened-in verandah to watch the evening wildlife emerge.

What is a jaguarundi?

What is a jaguarundi? This is a jaguarundi! Photo by Alena Houšková, CC License

What is a Margay cat?

What is a Margay? This is a Margay! Photo by Malene Thyssen, CC License

No Jaguars tonight – we might have to look further afield tomorrow.

Want to go? Need to know!

  • Water Taxis run regularly between Caye Caulker and Belize City.
  • Looking for a place to eat in Belize City? We could suggest one, but really you want to read this article from the fabulous San Pedro Scoop.
  • The Cockscomb Basin Wildlife Sanctuary offers a range of places to sleep, depending on your travel preferences (flush toilet or pit latrine?) and the number of people you’re travelling with (we find dormitory bedding adds to a group holiday experience, and detracts from a couple’s romantic weekend in Belize!)

Does anybody think we spent too little time in Belize City? What are your tips for long bus rides? Share them with the world in the comments below.

On The Buses and Off the Mainland

By Jacob Aldridge

Today’s Itinerary

Friday morning dawns clearly, and it’s the smell that first reminds us to the fact that we weren’t camping in the desert last night – while we were sleeping, the Pacaya volcano was still erupting around us (and generating that sulphur smell!). It was entirely worth spending the night here, for the overnight tales around a lava campfire and for this – an opportunity to experience the volcano well before the crowds of tourists arrive.

Volcano by day

Pacaya Morning. Photo by Joachim Pietsch, CC License

So while they’re all just getting off their buses, we’re on our way back to better explore the town of Antigua, Guatemala. Ordered evacuated in the late 1700s, the town today is a mix of those Spanish colonial ruins and a modern central American community wanted to display the colours and flavours of this region. There’s an easy lunch to grab at the markets, and coffee … well, it’s just as good (and local) as the chocolate was yesterday.

Mother and Child, Guatemala

Downtown Antigua. Photo by szeke, CC License

Our last stop is a drink on the rooftop terrace of Cafe Sky, the perfect space to watch the sun set between the volcanoes that surround the town. For us today, the weather is not as perfect as it could be – there are storms rolling in. Make sure you grab an extra drink for the road – we have a long night ahead of us … on the buses.

Chicken Bus!

Chicken Bus! Photo by David Dennis, CC License

Central America is known for its ‘Chicken Buses’, mostly old US school buses repurposed for local transport where they are reborn with character … and a little craziness. We feel a little crazy waiting in the bus shelter for our 7pm bus to arrive, but what a moment to savour when it does. It’s Friday night in Guatemala, and our senses are being pressed by the encroaching storm; focusing us on the small things that surround us as we board; and as lightning cracks and the rain begins to dump our bus pulls out from Antigua on the way back to Guatemala City.

Colourful as the Chicken Buses are (and if you love the photos here, consider buying the book here!), it’s the fellow passengers that make the journey exciting. We’re on a dream holiday, yet for them this is reality, living and working in the small town of Antigua and each with their own reason to be heading into the capital city in the rain. Travelling by bus in Guatemala is a tourist ritual, and to miss a Chicken Bus experience is like going to Pisa, Italy, to only see the train station.

The same can’t be said of all bus journeys, however. This is just the first leg of a marathon effort that will take us all the way from this plantation community on Friday night to the island of Caye Caulker, in neighbouring Belize, on Saturday afternoon.

Tips for surviving long bus rides
We recently shared our tips for surviving long train journeys. In our experience, 8 hours on a train is much, much easier than 8 hours on a bus. And so our tips are different.

  • Pack plenty of water and snacks
  • And pack wet wipes for your face (et cetera). This will help the person next to you as much as it will help you!
  • If you’ve ever had any kind of motion sickness, be prepared to elbow your way to get a seat near the front of the bus
  • Things to bring on a long bus ride start with Headphones, headphones, headphones – you don’t always want to use them because the long bus rides are the perfect opportunity to talk to people, meet interesting fellow travellers (or locals) and gain some tips about places to go / see / eat /sleep. But it’s also good to have a backup plan
  • Don’t plan to sleep on the bus. Unless you’re very tired (or used to it), you probably won’t, even if it’s an overnight bus
  • Move your seat back asap. The longer you leave it forward, the more of a kick from behind you’ll get when you first recline
  • Use the toilet at every pitstop, even if you don’t think you need to go – no matter how bad it is, it’s probably better than experiencing the smell of the bus toilet (or a nasty pothole experience)
  • And here’s a sneaky one we love from Redditer crackanape: “in a cheap country, I try to buy a child ticket for the seat next to me. Sometimes they get annoyed when I can’t produce an actual child, but it’s always worked in the end.”

Our overnight bus from Guatemala City east to the town of Flores is thankfully incident-free, helped by the fact that we booked a 1st Class bus rather than the locals, which are somewhat cheaper but can potentially stop every 30 minutes … for 12 hours.

We arrive in Flores just after 5am, with the sun just a hint on the horizon and the storms having long since rolled through. There’s two hours here to stretch our legs by walking around the small town with the (successful) aim of finding fresh coffee at 7am on a Saturday morning. Most of our fellow passengers are staying here, with plans to visit the nearby Tikal National Park. We have one more bus, an express (always take the express) from Flores across the border into Belize, and up to Belize City where we arrive at lunchtime. As we board the water taxi in Belize City, we can feel our final destination – and then we can see it, the small island of Caye Caulker, where the sea air has the magic effect of washing away any deleterious effects of all that time on the bus.

Snorkelling Caye Caulker

Snorkelling Caye Caulker. Photo by rhurtubia, CC License

Saturday afternoon is spent exploring the island. We have time to ourselves – pretty well everything in Caye Caulker is a 20 minute walk away, at most. (And if that’s too much of a strain, you can hire a golf cart and take it really easy.) And there’s the option of an afternoon Bird Tour where … yes … that’s exactly what we needed to remind ourselves why we travel…a Tucan taking flight!

Tucan takes flight

Tucan play at that game. Photo by lowjumpingfrog, CC License

If the camping and the bus trip are still clinging to you, you’ll love our Sunday plans as we jump onto a boat for a full day snorkelling tour. Caye Caulker is on the edge of a tropical reef, and there’s no shortage of tropical fish and coral to snorkel past. We also have a chance to find out why Shark-Ray Alley is so named – and remember, any fins you see here probably aren’t attached to dolphins!! Lastly, there’s a chance to visit the Swallow Caye Marine Reserve – if anyone is loving the water as much as we are today, it’s these endangered Manatees that just look so darn huggable!

Tropical Fish

Diving for colour in Belize. Photo by A is for Angie, CC License

Manatee AND a Dugong

Is it a Manatee or a Dugong? Photo by Keith Ramos, CC License

Hot lava to cold ocean. That’s the everydaydream holiday weekend!

Want to go? Need to know!

  • You can fly from Guatemala City to Belize City to avoid the buses. Just be prepared to pay over $200 for the 45 minute flight … a positive bargain for the almost $100 you can pay for the onward flight from Belize City to Caye Caulker. Or pay a premium for shuttle buses (and miss the local experience) http://www.transportguatemala.com/shuttle-schedule.php
  • The roads in Guatemala are far better than you’re expecting, which also helps with enjoying the bus experience.
  • Water Taxis will cost $20Bz each way, but like most things in Belize US DOllars are also welcome (just confirm prices before handing them over, to avoid anything untoward).
  • Tsunami Adventures offer bird tours both by walking (on the southern end of Caye Caulker) or incorporating a boat tour to the north of the island
  • Caye Caulker is also a popular dive site, with experienced divers often travelling here just to explore the 145m deep Great Blue Hole in the centre of the Lighthouse Reef
  • Manatees are also known as Dugongs. An endangered species globally, they’re often overlooked in a world of Finding Nemo and Shark Fin Soup. Companies like Humpybong in Australia are trying to change that awareness gap.

What are your tips for long bus rides? Share them with the world in the comments below.

Toasting Marshmallows Over Lava!

By Jacob Aldridge

Today’s Itinerary

Our morning flight out of Mexico City is bound for Guatemala City, but it’s not the present day capital of Guatemala that brings us here. Instead we are bound one hour west of the capital by bus, to Antigua Guatemala. If Antigua to you means only the Caribbean Island of that name, you’re in for a fabulous culture shock as we explore a city that was created after a volcano, survived a magnitude 7.4 earthquake, and was ordered abandoned 240 years ago … but not everybody left.

The history of chocolate is almost as old as the history of Greece and, we have to say, far more digestible in a single afternoon. Central America is where it all began so our first stop in Antigua is the ‘Choco Museo‘. It was the Mayans who first cultivated cocoa in Guatemala, and the bitter drink was introduced to the world via the Spanish conquistadors. It was the later refinements (adding sugar, particularly, to take the edge of the bitter taste of natural cocoa) that give us the popular sweet that chocolate lovers today concur “makes the world go round”.

Chocolate Demonstration

Another chocolate making experience, in nearby Quetzaltenango. Photo by Patrick Hui, CC License

We’re not here for the museum (alone). We’ve actually booked ourselves in for a Truffle Making workshop. Here, the history and manufacturing process of chocolate come to life – it’s one of the few workshops we’ve done where you’re encouraged to get your hands dirty! A truffle, in chocolatier parlance, is ganache-filled, so after a short theory lesson we have an hour to each create our own ganache filling, build the chocolate exterior, and then fill our own samples. What is ganache? Delicious!

What is Ganache?

Ganache is the soft filling for truffles, and chocolate ganache is also a popular icing. Photo by Mama Pyjama, CC License.

The Museum itself takes about 30 minutes to tour – it’s insightful on its own, but even more fabulous when you know your own creation is currently being cooled ready to take away. Best of all – our next stop gives us every excuse to eat our truffles now, because we don’t want them to melt…

…on the hike to the top of an active volcano!

Climb Pacaya Volcano

Climbing Pacaya. Photo by Greg Willis, CC License

The Pacaya Volcano is the most visited volcano in the Americas, and when we say it’s active we’re not using weasley geological terms to sound cool. This baby blew its stack in 1965 and has been erupting continuously ever since. Since a 2010 eruption, rivers of lava have been visible to tourists who make the easy 1 hour climb to the peak.

Oh yeah – and it started ramping up again just 3 weeks ago!

The only way to see Pacaya without the crowds is to be there first thing in the morning. And what’s the best way to be there first thing? Camp on the volcano overnight, of course!

So in the late afternoon, we find ourselves on a bus with O.X. Outdoor Excursions. It’s hard to appreciate the Spanish colonial ruins of Antigua, when our nervous stomachs are rumbling just as much as the volcano we’re driving towards. The tourist police on board the bus are reassuring for a number of reasons, but we still have to ask … “How active is ‘Active’?”

Here’s the answer!

Pacaya Volcano Lava Flow.

Pacaya Lava Flow. Photo by Dany & Maryse, CC License

Volcanoes are Fun?

Volcanoes are Fun? Photo by Oisin Prendiville, CC License

Night falls on Pacaya

Night falls on Pacaya. Photo by Eric Menjivar, CC License

 

 

Somehow we don’t think it’s going to be too cold out here overnight. And we love that the O.X. guide brought along some marshmallows – best idea ever!

Marshmallows Toasting on Lava.

Marshmallows Toasting on Lava. Best idea ever. Photo by Beth and Anth, CC License

Now we wait for sunrise…

Want to go? Need to know!

  • We took the Turansa Shuttle Bus from Guatemala City airport out to Antigua, due to safety concerns that exist for the normal bus. While it costs 9 times as much, you’re still only paying $10-$12 for your safety – and we’ll have plenty of other local bus opportunities. You’ll have plenty of shuttle options – grab the first one you can, or book ahead.
  • Making truffles is just the start of a central American chocolate adventure. ChocoMuseo also offer plantation tours, if your chocolate passion runs to botany or agriculture; if you just love playing with chocolate then book yourself in for the three week course on chocolate sculpture making.
  • Antigua Guatemala is surrounded by volcanoes – Pacaya is the most visited because it’s easiest to access. The others are Volcan de Agua (‘Volcano of Water’, or Hunapu to the original inhabitants), the twin-peaks of Acatenango, and Volcan de Fuego (‘Volcano of Fire’ – we think a more appropriate name than Volcano of Water!).

OK – so we’ve been taking you on an everydaydream holiday for 10 countries now. Have you ever seen anything cooler than toasting marshmallows over a campfire made from lava? Can you even imagine anything cooler? Let us know in the comments below – and we’ll definitely go there!

Love the unpredictable – a day in Mexico City

By Chris K

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Mexico City is a place where you could start the day without an itinerary, and by the end of the day you will have eaten wonderful food, found unique handmade goods in three or four markets, shared a quick drink (or two) with some locals, and then spent the evening dancing away to music played by some extraordinary musicians.

All you need is a love of the unpredictable.

We’re going to try valiantly (but fail regardless) to capture some of the variety that Mexico City has to offer, on our second day here. Catch up on what we did in just one day in Mexico City.

Photo by Carlos Alvarez, Licensed under CC.

Photo by Carlos Alvarez, Licensed under CC.

Today’s Itinerary

  • we get up early to catch the Cathedral Metropolitana in the early quiet of the morning
  • check out the architectural variety, old and new, of El Zócalo
  • visit the home of a Mexican art superstar
  • throw ourselves into the eclectic neighbourhood that is Coyoacán
  • dive into Mexico City’s nightlife, courtesy of recommendations from a local guide

That’s one way to make a statement

When you’ve conquered a people and devastated a culture, there’s nothing that makes a statement that says ‘we won’ like building a new place of worship right over the top of their old place of worship.

Hernan Cortes, not well-known as history’s most friendly chap, did just this after the Spanish conquest of Tenochtitlán.

The resulting monument is the Catedral Metropolitana, situated in El Zócalo (Plaza de la Constitución), and is where we start our day. The Cathedral imposes itself over the massive square, but the stunning detail of the many chapels inside the Cathedral are well worth exploring.

Photo by Francisco Diez, Licensed under CC.

Photo by Francisco Diez, Licensed under CC.

Back outside the Cathedral, we find ourselves in El Zócalo, an enormous public space and home to a snapshot of Mexican history through the architectural styles of the buildings that surround it. It has been used for concerts, public displays of art, and as the temporary canvas for the naked bodies of 18,000 brave Mexicans.

Photo by Eneas De Troya, Licensed under CC.

Expect to be surprised in Mexico City. Photo by Eneas De Troya, Licensed under CC.

Just doing your job – discover ancient ruins. Bonus time?

Before we leave the central square of Mexico City, we have to pay a visit to the Templo Mayor. Famously, it was found in dribs and drabs over decades, until finally;

On 25 February 1978, workers for the electric company were digging at a place in the city then popularly known as the “island of the dogs.” …[a]t just over two meters down they struck a pre-Hispanic monolith. This stone turned out to be a huge disk…weighing 8.5 metric tons. (source)

Imagine being able to tell that story down at the pub after work.

Visit the home of a Mexican art superstar

Photo by momo, Licensed under CC.

Photo by momo, Licensed under CC.

The Blue House, or more evocatively, the Casa Azul, was the home of Mexican artist Frida Kahlo and is now a museum to celebrate her life and work.

It isn’t within walking distance (unless you feel like a long walk) so we take a Metro to a station close by (either Coyoacán‎ or General Anaya‎ will do).

A now internationally recognised artist, whose work is famous for its incredibly strong sense of identity as a Mexican and as a woman, Frida had a life of heartbreaking hardship and struggle, and not until after her death did her art achieve the fame that it deserved.

Her life reflects the turbulence of Mexico’s history in the 21st century and is in and of itself a fascinating story, and well worth our time.

Photo by Maria de Oro, Licensed under CC.

Photo by Maria de Oro, Licensed under CC.

Exploring Coyoacán

Whilst we’re in the neighbourhood, we might as well take a look around the area that Frida Kahlo called home.

Coyoacán is home to an eclectic mix of the past and present, with cafes, galleries, and museums. Wander around the tree-lined streets and see what grabs you.

Photo by Franco Folini, Licensed under CC.

This isn’t actually in Mexico City, but is a nice tribute to Frida and a range of other Mexican Artists, and the artistic style captures Coyoacan’s feel. Photo by Franco Folini, Licensed under CC.

Following on from yesterday’s theme – there’s also plenty of places to grab a taco on the run. The NYTimes recommends SUPER TACOS CHUPACABRAS (Avenida Río Churubusco, near Avenida Coyoacán) – which is hard to argue with. They’re super tacos.

Mexico City Night Life

Everyone is going to have their favourite bar, cantina, or nightclub, and we’re not going to argue with Mexico City’s 8 million local.

Instead, we’re pointing you to nightlife recommendations from a Mexico City local – you can argue with them!

Photo by Rodrigo Huerta, Licensed under CC.

Photo by Rodrigo Huerta, Licensed under CC.

Special Mention: Lucha Libre in Mexico City

We’d love to see one of the famous lucha libre fights in Arena Mexico (where is it? 189 Calle R. Lavista, Colonia Doctores, Mexico City), but these are a Friday night activity. We can still get in on the act, though – there are plenty of stores that sell the kitchy masks all around town – BBC Travel recommend El Hijo Del Santo.

If you’d like to take a closer look at lucha libre, you can watch this video.

What did you think of Mexico City? Tell us in the comments.

Where We Met the Gods

By Chris K

Today’s Itinerary

  • arrive bright and early into Mexico City
  • take a tour to see the pyramids of Teotihuacan
  • chill out in the beautiful Museo Soumaya
  • tuckered out? Not yet – there’s tacos to be eaten
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An overnight flight brings us all the way from the serene grace of Japan. Borrowing some of those zen meditation techniques we’re well rested and ready to dive into what Mexico City has to offer.

Located high above sea level, some visitors to Mexico City are said to have trouble breathing. All of our research is telling us the same – so much to do there will hardly be time to catch our breath!

From the huge variety of it’s cuisine, to cultural history, to the sheer scale of the city (think New York with more chaotic traffic), Mexico City is pulsing with life and great things to do.

The Road to the Gods

But today we’re studiously ignoring all of the interesting and exciting things to do in Mexico City proper (or Ciudad de México) and going on a little half day trip.

Mexico City takes its cultural influences from many different cultures but the oldest influence that remains visible is from the Aztecs, and we’re going to visit an ancient city started in around 100 BC.

Teotihuacan is just 50 kilometres from Mexico City and is serviced by many tour operators – but it is just as easy to get a bus, and much cheaper too. As an added positive, we won’t have to spend most of our day visiting tequila shops, which leaves some time in the afternoon for a visit to an impressive attraction.

We head down to the bus terminal called Autobuses del Norte Station and head to Gate 8. Buses leave every fifteen minutes or so and it will take us roughly an hour to get to our destination – that’s plenty of time to think ahead to the destinations that are coming up on our calendar, or just watch the landscape slide by as we head well out of Mexico City.

Where the Gods were Born

Photo by LM TP, Licensed under CC.

Photo by LM TP, Licensed under CC.

When all that is left of a culture are the monuments they made with backbreaking labour, a visit is full of wonder and awe mixed with a sense of loss. We have the relics, art, and architectural creations of these ancients but sometimes you’re compelled to wonder, at what cost to the ordinary people building these monuments. It’s important to appreciate what the legacy they have been left behind.

Teotihuacan covers some 80 kiliometres square, and in addition to being named a UNESCO World Heritage site, offers one of the most accessible locations for exploring the Aztec history.

According to Visit Mexico, there are several entrances and choosing the right one depends on how long you want to spend wandering this vast space.

For those with a full day, they recommend the first entrance. Those with less time can use the second or third entrances.

The road running through the center of Teotihuacan, charmingly named the Avenue of the Dead, is set slightly off alignment from North to South – some theories suggesting it represents a model of the solar system, others that it is there to align with the setting sun on a particular day of the year.

Photo by Owen Prior, Licensed under CC.

Photo by Owen Prior, Licensed under CC.

By the far the most impressive structure, and the one requiring the most energy to take advantage of, is the Pyramid of the Sun. At almost 60 metres high, it is quite a climb, particularly if Mexico is turning on the sunshine. But the view from the top is definitely worth it, as you turn to see the whole of Teotihuacan laid out before you.

Photo by José Luis Ruiz, Licensed under CC.

Photo by José Luis Ruiz, Licensed under CC.

Modern Monuments and Mexico Culture

From an ancient monument to a modern one – we’re heading back into town to discover what billionaires spend their dimes on.

We also ask the question – just what does a billionaire do in their spare time? When they just need to relax and unwind and not have to worry about all of those piles of money sitting around waiting to be spent?

They collect coins. Which maybe explains the billionaire thing.

Carlos Slim’s contribution to Mexico City is the incredibly beautiful museum, the Museo Soumaya. Named after his late wife, the musuem contains the largest collection of Auguste Rodin casts outside of France, and also houses his impressive coin collection – the ones he collected in his spare time.

Museo Soumaya - Reflected Glory?

Museo Soumaya – Photograph by eclecctica, CC License

Taco Time

We. Love. Tacos.

And to eat them in the place where they were invented is the perfect way to finish our first day in Mexico. For Taco recommendations, we look to Conde Nast Traveler.

Mexico City Tip

Use the Metro! It carries around 1.2 billion passengers a year and at 2-3 pesos for a ride, it the smartest way to avoid the grinding traffic on the roads.

Photo by Esparta Palma, Licensed under CC.

Photo by Esparta Palma, Licensed under CC.

What else chould we do in Mexico City? What’s your favourite taco place?

Give us your tips in the comments.

Zen and the Art of Painting a Pavilion in Gold Leaf

By Jacob Aldridge

Today’s Itinerary

An early start for us all this Monday as we begin our final day in Japan, on board the local bus (and still under the watchful eye of our local expert Leah) to the Golden Pavilion, just north of Kyoto. Kyoto Buses announce stops (and include signs) in English as well as Japanese, which makes them a reliable option for navigating this beautiful city.

The Golden Pavilion complex dates back to the end of the 14th Century, the retirement villa of the shogun Ashikaga Yoshimitsu converted on his death into a Zen temple. No prizes for guessing the origin of its name – the top two levels of the Golden Pavilion are completely covered by gold leaf.

Two levels of gold leaf!

The Golden Pavilion and Lake. Photo by David Sanz, CC License

Absorbing the view across the lake as the early morning light strikes the gold makes it clear why this is the favourite option for many tourists wondering what to do in Kyoto.

Entry to the Golden Pavilion, and the nearby hojo (priest’s living quarters) is not permitted, but look closely across the lake and you can admire the statues revealed inside the ground floor, including one of Yoshimitsu himself who would be impressed at the dedication Kyoto has shown to the pavilion – it’s been rebuilt at least 3 times, with the current structure dating to 1955.

Ryoan-ji Japanese Rock Garden. Photo by Ryosuke Yagi, CC License

Ryoan-ji Japanese Rock Garden. Photo by Ryosuke Yagi, CC License

Bus number 59 takes us from right outside the Golden Pavilion to our next destination, the Zen garden in the Ryoanji Temple. You may be familiar with Japanese rock gardens – Ryoanji is perhaps the most famous example of Zen rock garden design. In addition to the innumerable small stones, there are 15 large rocks in the design (though the specific meaning is unclear after 650 years). If relaxing the mind is not your idea of fun Kyoto travel, then take up this challenge: can you find the spot where all 15 large rocks can be seen? (Here are some photos – answer in ‘Want to Go? Need to Know!’ below)

The only way to see all 15 stones

Viewing from the air is cheating! Model Photo by Kimon Berlin, CC License

At Ryoanji, the hojo (and the adjacent Kuri – kitchen) are accessible, as are hours-worth of walking trails around the pond. These are best experienced in Spring, however, so we make a beeline for the restaurant Ryoanji Yudofuya and enjoy an early lunch of yudofu (Kyoto’s specialty boiled tofu) among the tatami screens.

Classic Yum!

Ryoanji Yudofuya. Photo by Herry Lawford, CC License

Next, we’re on the tram from Ryoanji to the Arashiyama bamboo grove. The sunlight dapples through the immense bamboo, and even in the middle of the day on the narrower paths there is more greenery than sunshine.

On the train ride back to Kyoto station, Leah shares that one the favourite things to do in Kyoto is an afternoon spent on these bamboo paths until completely running out of sunlight (followed, of course, by dinner in Gion trying to see a geisha).

Arashiyama Bamboo Grove

Arashiyama Bamboo Grove. Photo by Curt Smith, CC License

What to do in Kyoto? Bamboo

More bamboo than sky! Photo by CLF, CC License

Bamboo and Sunlight

Some sunlight, just. Photo by hslo, CC License

But our time in Kyoto must end before the day runs out, as we take the 2.20pm bus to Kansai International Airport ahead of an evening flight from Osaka to our next daydream holiday destination – Mexico City! Prepare to say sayonara one last time, and practice your Hola for when we touch down!

Kansai International Airport, from the air!

Kansai International Airport, from the air! Photo by mrhayata, CC Licensed

Want to go? Need to know!

  • Leah, our local expert from travel.com.au, is “completely torn” about deciding what to do in Kyoto given the limits of our 4 day trip. If we had another day, the plan would be to spend the whole day exploring the Higashiyama district – done well you can knock over Kiyomuzudera, Yasaka Jinga, Maruyama Park and Chionin.
  • Bus passes are an easy way to travel Kyoto – grab a ‘Bus Navi‘ from the information centre – or you can walk some of the legs. Ryonaji is only a 25 minute walk from the Golden Pavilion, for example.
  • Looking for a website to help you learn more about what to do in Kyoto? Check out Japan-Guide (their links to the Golden Pavilion, Ryoanji, and Arashiyama)
  • Want the answer to our Ryoanji riddle? It’s actually a trick question – it is not possible to see all 15 rocks from one viewpoint. So if you find the kids (or another tourist) are getting all up in your Zen, set them the challenge and enjoy the quiet.
  • We cross the international dateline on our flight – so while 15 hours with United is the longest flight we’ve yet done on our dream holiday, we actually depart on Monday at 6.20pm and land on Monday at 7.03pm. I’ve never seen so many movies in just 43 minutes!

Still wondering what to do in Kyoto? Or want to share your favourite moment from our Japanese daydream holiday? Wed love to hear your thoughts in the comments below.

From Glico Neon to Geisha Style: The beautiful madness of Japan

By Jacob Aldridge

Today’s Itinerary

The hardest part about early morning international flights is often the cold, yet somehow just the thought of leaving Harbin makes us feel warmer. Our flight with China Southern (not heard of them? They’re actually the 4th largest airline in the world!) lands in Osaka, Japan just after midday.

Now, “lands in Osaka” is somewhat misleading – Kansai International Airport is actually an artificial island inside Osaka Bay. Completed in 1994, engineers excavated 21 million cubic metres (27 million cubic yards) of soil from three separate mountains to create this international hub. (And they did a fantastic job – it’s already survived an earthquake and a typhoon.)

Kansai International Airport, from the air!

Kansai International Airport, from the air! Photo by mrhayata, CC Licensed

Japan can be an overwhelming destination if you don’t come prepared. Thankfully, we’re under the watchful eye of Leah, a tours and activities expert for travel.com.au, and a former resident of this enticing archipelago. Minutes later, we on the airport train ‘Nankai Limited Express’ for the 45 minutes (7 stop) trip to Nipponbashi.

Better know by its local name ‘Den Den Town’, Nipponbashi is like 1980s Japan on steroids. Every electronic need you may have can be met here (and feel free to bargain with the vendors), and with districts shifting from gadgets to anime and eventually fashion, Den Den Town can be seen as a cultural immersion first and a shopping opportunity second.

Of course, Japan’s cultural heritage owes more to the samurai than to manga. Leah navigates us onto the subway for the six minute journey from Namba Station to Tanimachi (changing at Honmachi half way through). It’s Osaka, not Tokyo, so we don’t have to be squeezed into the carriages by guards.

We come back into daylight in the metaphorical shadow of Osaka Castle. From this location Hideyoshi Toyotomi unified Japan, but when the Shogunate later moved to Tokyo the region lost power – the original main tower was destroyed along with the Toyotomi family in the Summer War of Osaka in 1615. The current main tower may be twentieth century, but the artefacts and emotional history it displays are far older; so too are the immense gardens (106 Hectares / 250 acres of them) which boast cherry blossoms and 95 kinds of apricot flowers in the spring, while the highlight of our winter wander is the Great Stone Wall on the inner moat.

The brooding Osaka Castle

Osaka Castle and the Great Stone Wall. Photo by Joop Dorresteijn, CC Licensed.

Evening calls, so we head back to Dotonbori for food and neon wonderment. This is not Times Square or Piccadilly Circus, as the Glico Running Man (“a postwar symbol of Japan emerging as an economic power”, says Leah) indicates. We could walk for hours taking in the neon signs of Ebisubashi and the madness of Dotonbori Arcade, powered only by takoyaki octopus balls (or maybe a stop at one of the many izakaya, where good and drink are often served in equal quantities).

Glico Running Man, Ebisuba

Glico Running Man, Ebisuba. Photo by yeowatzup. CC License.

But our mind turns to Saturday. An hour east of Osaka by train, Nara is the cradle of Japanese civilisation and home to the UNESCO listed Todai-ji complex. We’ve seen some overwhelming temples on our everydaydream holiday so far – but nothing prepares us for the 500 tonne, 15 metre high ‘Big Buddha’.

Daibutsu, Naro

That is a big buddha. Photo by David Offf, CC License.

You can look closely and observe the combination of periods that make up the Daibutsu – a head from the Edo period, while the hands are much older, all housed in a 300 year old hall that until 1998 was the world’s largest wooden building. If you do observe changes forced by earthquakes and fires, then be mindful of this quote from the Buddha himself:

When I was a young man, near the beginning of my life, I looked around with true mindfulness and saw that all things are subject to decay. Thus all things are subject to death, sorrow and suffering. I became aware that I too was of the same nature, the nature of beginning and end.

Too much spirituality? Then go and enjoy watching the Sika Deer which freely roam the temple gardens, before we take another train journey north to Kyoto. Once here, we head for dinner in the Gion – Kyoto’s main restaurant, shopping … and geisha (geiko, in the local dialect) hub.

An authentic geisha experience is exclusive, no dream holiday or wallet size will gain you access to the Ichiriki Ochaya, for example. While a tourist geisha experience is now an option, the thought of paying a premium to eat and watch in a tourist trap is the antithesis of our everydaydream holiday. So instead, we wander down Shirakawa Canal, select a restaurant full of locals, and enjoy some genuine Japanese cuisine (while also keeping an eye on the street for any geisha who may walk past).

See a Geisha in Kyoto

Please – if you see a Geisha in Kyoto, be respectful. Photo by This Particular Greg, CC License

Sunday dawns with a promise of comfortable shoes and quality photo equipment. We head two stations back towards Nara for the amazing 4 kilometre (6 mile) meander around Fushimi Inari. The only photographic subject more Japanese than cherry blossom has to be the red gates, and today we will see hundreds of them – large and small, isolated, and built together to created shaded paths that lead to the various shrines on this site.

Red gate Fushimi Inari

One Red Gate. Photo by Daa Nell, CC License

Many red gates Fushimi Inari

MANY Red Gates! Photo by SteFou, CC License

What an amazing weekend in Japan … and we still have Monday to see more!

Want to go? Need to know!

  • Japan’s rail and subway infrastructure is superb – and clearly colour coded, even if you can’t read kanji or kana.
  • A quick rule of thumb – you can divide Yen by 100 (just remove the last two zeroes, so 3000 becomes 30) to give you an approximate amount in US Dollars. The exchange rate isn’t quite that bad (unless you buy currency at the airport!), but you try dividing everything by 89!
  • Shinto and Buddhism are the two most common religions in Japan, although (by western comparison) both are more ‘harmonious ways of living’ than an orthodox dogma.
  • Here’s a link to a collection of real Buddha quotes – but if you’re looking for laughs, go to the home page and explore their fake Buddha quotes!
  • Want a glimpse inside the madness of Osaka (and Leah)? Enjoy this personal video she took on her most recent trip to Japan (when she wasn’t dragging around hundreds of everydaydreamers).

Which part of Japan’s diverse culture interests you the most? What would you like us to do in Kyoto on Monday? Please share your thoughts in the comments below.