Mexico City

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Last but not least, the capital itself. It was quite a contrast going from an island with 16,000 inhabitants, to a city with a population at least five times as great as my home country.  I wasn’t sure what to expect; like most people, mention the nation’s capital and I conjured up thoughts of pollution and traffic. My flatmate in Italy, Hector, was from Mexico City, and I was so excited to see him again and to be shown around this gigantic city with a local’s perspective.

A fascinating piece of history is that Mexico City has been colloquially dubbed the ‘sinking city’. It was built in a valley many years ago, and since it has been slowly sinking. This is really highlighted in some of the cathedrals; you actually have to walk down stairs to enter the cathedral, and the floors are definitely on slants. Mexico City is split up into a number of districts, each distinct with its own reputation. Hector worked in the Federal District, which was hustling, bustling and full of important looking people wearing suits. Our first meal took place here, and we were pretty excited to have a local ordering for us. At Oaxaca Bistro we launched ourselves into the thick of delicious, authentic Mexican food; and this was just the beginning. We ordered from a set lunch menu, which apparently is the done thing. Also nearby is La Casa de los Abuelos, basically an institution when it comes to classic Mexican food.

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Not far from Hector’s office is La Reforma, the equivalent to Barcelona’s Las Ramblas: it is an incredible boulevard that stretches for 12 kilometres, and is lined with hotels, greenery, office buildings, protests and the famous Latinoamericana Tower (once the tallest building in the city). It terminates in the Centro Historico; cobblestone pedestrian streets crammed with taco carts, street vendors and extremely cheap clothing stores. One of the prettier buildings is the Palacio de bellas artes; an art gallery/opera house that is white with a gold roof. Running parallel to Reforma is Alamadas – the oldest public park in the city, and if you need food Café de Tacuba is not too far away (Mexico City’s longest established café). If I had to recommend somewhere to stay, I would suggest somewhere close to the Reforma (although the closer you get, I expect the more expensive it would be), or in the bohemian Condesa neighbourhood; wide boulevards lined with trees and littered with funky bars and cafes, it was described as Mexico’s East Village (New York), or Notting Hill (London).

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The most obvious downfall to a city with so many people is the traffic problems it causes. It took so incredibly long to get anywhere. Thankfully Uber was were cheap, as I couldn’t imagine having to bus everywhere. As all of the people in Hector’s suburb have their own cars, there is no need for the subway to extend out that far. The taxis around the city are all either pink and white, or red and gold. A great way to see the most impressive sights of the extensive city, without having to drive or taxi everywhere is to buy a ticket for the “Hop on, Hop off” bus. Through this means we saw the Castillo de Chapultepec; a once royal residence, that transformed into a presidential dwelling, and now a museum (65 peso entry, unfortunately everything is written only in Spanish), the Monument of Independence, the Revolution Monument, and of course, the Anthropology Museum. This is Mexico’s most popular museum, and I loved it just as much as the next person. The history of the Mayan’s and Aztecs is absolutely fascinating, and you could lose yourself in the incredibly displayed warren of artefacts. We were fortunate in that a man at the help-desk gave us a ‘highlights’ tour, so we got to see the best of it in about 2 hours.

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On our last day in Mexico City we took a day trip from the Audacio to the Pyramids of the Sun and Moon. We left at about 8am, and made a few stops on the way. First up was Basilica de Nuestra Senora de Guadalupe, Mexico’s most important religious site.  We drove through Tlalnepantla City, which consisted of hundreds of concrete houses covering the hill-side, all painted bold block colours; orange, green, yellow, purple, pink – you name it! At the pyramids we learnt how the Mayans used to obtain pigments to colour their paintings. Climbing up the pyramids was no mean feat; the steps were almost vertical, and there was a fair few of them. The souvenirs sold here were all pretty unique; various ornaments made from obelisk (the mineral that used to be mined in the area), as well as whistles that sounded like wild animals and birds. From here we visited a workshop where we learnt the various uses of the agave plant: soap, paper, needles and thread are just a few of the many uses. We were then given shots of mezcal and tequila, before taken to a buffet lunch where we were entranced by performances of miriacha and cultural Aztec dancers. We then got taught how to play Aztec ball – the throwing up of a round ball and hitting it back and forth to each other through a hoop, using the back-side of ones biceps as a bat.

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Tulum

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A $7 bus ride and approximately an hour from Playa del Carmen lies Tulum. If you are after a holiday destination that incorporates a pristine beach, a laid-back atmosphere, ancient Mayan ruins (Tulum means “wall” in Mayan) and of course, authentic Mexican food, then Tulum will probably fit the bill. Better still, it’s warm all year around (although rainiest in June, September, and October).

Sleep

We stayed at the Lobo Inn, which was about 200m from the entrance to the ruins. The hostel has the potential to be awesome – however it was quite a way out of town, lacked power-points and lights in general (which reflects Tulum’s lack of a community power supply), and the bathrooms were sub-par. It did offer a delicious free breakfast, as well as the opportunity to borrow bikes – we claimed two straight away and used them to ‘xplore the ‘burbs.

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La Coqueta = top notch. Near the supermarkets (Charmani is the better quality of the two), we were told to expect a wait but that it would be worth it. We crept in to get the last available table. Here I experienced my first Mexican Coca-Cola (they use palm sugar instead of the artificial stuff that America puts in) and a delicious vegetarian wrap. It was so good, had there been time we definitely would have come back.

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Move

Cycling: Unlike New Zealand, helmets are considered a mere accessory – therefore no one wears them. Cycling round the ‘burbs are an inexpensive, fun way of seeing the area and gives you freedom an ability to explore in a way walking and taxi’s do not. The houses in the area were minimalistic, with cheaply constructed washing lines and beaten-up cars outside, often guarded by a dog – probably a stray.

Do

Beach: Tulum’s biggest draw card. White sand that stretches for miles, clean blue water, and for once, more palm trees than people – it was a stereotypical beach-lovers paradise. Cabanas dot the dunes, and occasionally vendors wander past with fresh fruit for sale (to my dismay no-one seemed be selling mango).

Ruins: Dating from the thirteenth century, it doesn’t take long to see why the Mayan’s chose this picturesque spot for their temples. Big grassy spaces dotted with palm trees (it reminded me of a golf course), private beaches (but open to the public within the ruins) and lots of stone ruins. The ruins cost 650 pesos, and are an afternoon well spent.

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Cenotes: A must-do whilst in Mexico. Natural freshwater pools in caves, there are two main ones near to Tulum; Gran Cenote and Dos Ojos. We opted for the latter and for 400 pesos caught a collectivo (about a 25 minute drive from the entrance to the ruins) where we got dropped at the entrance, with a piece of paper that had someone’s name on it. It was all very confusing, but in the end, a driver collected us, drove us through the entrance to the cenote where we got given snorkels, flippers and directions to the ‘baby’ cave. We thought it was strange to be offered wetsuits in Mexico, but after jumping into the water we soon realised why: it was ICY cold. We snorkelled through the cave until we were comfortable, then we headed back up to the equipment area, where we were taken to the more advanced cave. A guide led us through a long cave – it was really dark (we had underwater torches) with stalactites, bats, and lots of beautiful scenery.

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Akumal: A collectivo ride later we found ourselves dropped off at an exit point on the side of the highway. We were unsure where to go, so we thought logically and walked back along the road to the entrance of the Akumal Resort, only to be denied entry, and told to walk back where we came from. Feeling very uncertain we walked along the highway exit, but thankfully it evolved into a commercial boulevard (for the general public). It is about a ten minute walk. A Mexican man latched onto us as we walked and miraculously convinced us into signing up for his snorkelling tour.

Seventy minutes and 300 pesos later we had our own private guide who pointed out eel rays, fish, squid and sea turtles. And not just one sea turtle, we saw several. They were enormous, and were not at all afraid of humans. Every so often they need to come up for air, and when they mission it to the surface, you almost feel that if you don’t get out of their way they will swim straight through you. It was fascinating, and the water was so warm I could have stayed in there forever.  We left all of our clothes and valuables in plastic containers on the beach, and although they were ‘supervised’ we were still pretty relieved to see everything there upon our return.

After returning our snorkel gear, and being given a sea urchin as a gift from our guide, Hailee and I went and found a spot in the sun. It started raining and Hailee went for lunch; I accidentally fell asleep and somehow got really sunburnt (which sure makes carrying a backpack painful). My day was made when I found a man selling fresh mango on sticks with chilli and lime for just $3.

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MEXICO

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There is something about the Spanish culture that I absolutely adored when I was in Europe. A combination of the weather, the language, the food, people and music; a sense of happiness encompassed me in Spain, and I was hoping for the same in Mexico. I hadn’t been to Mexico since a childhood visit to Tijuana, so I was definitely excited to explore the unknown. I had been learning Spanish for the few months leading up to this trip, and I was enthused by the prospect of practicing these skills. It was also a cheap, chilled way to end my trip; a cheeky stop through the Riviera Maya, who wouldn’t say no to a swim in the Caribbean?!

Here’s where I visited: (click on each title to read more)

 

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10 useful tips to know before you travel to Mexico:

  1. The water is mostly undrinkable. Ask at your accommodation though, because sometimes they will have a filter.
  2. US dollars are a second unofficial currency. Most places will accept US dollars or pesos, and frequently both prices will be advertised. It pays to always carry some cash, as most places won’t accept cards.
  3. Mexico’s own aperitif – corn chips with various sauces. Whenever you go out for a meal, complimentary chips are brought out to start you off; I had to develop some serious self-control, and quickly – otherwise I never actually wanted to eat my dinner.
  4. Haggling is a thing. In department stores, grocery stores, pharmacies and the like, prices will be as advertised. However, if it is a flea-market type shop, then feel free to negotiate towards what you believe is a fair price.
  5. Getting around – welcome to the collectivo. Looks like a shuttle, effectively a group taxi; you wave them down and should pay about 25 pesos regardless of where you are going. We got ripped off a few times, but didn’t waste our time arguing over a few dollars.
  6. Obviously the places I visited were more touristy than a lot of other places in Mexico, but I was astonished at how well everyone spoke English and how willing everyone is to help.
  7. Mexican toilets and loo paper don’t mix well. Don’t risk it, save yourself a potentially awkward situation and when instructed, just put your loo paper in the rubbish bin provided.
  8. Being young, female and blonde meant I attracted a lot of unwanted attention. I soon learnt that the Mexicans thrive off banter, and if you are willing to move past their nonsensical chat, they are indeed great sources of local information, and unlike other countries, are absolutely stoked to have you practice your amateur Spanish-speaking skills on them.
  9. Mexico’s version of the Seven Eleven, OXXO stores are virtually everywhere, and sell virtually everything.
  10. Museums are often closed on Mondays, so check that first.

 

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  • Everything incorporates tortillas one way or another. Whether it be fresh in a taco, toasted in a tostada, or grilled into a quesadilla, I suddenly found myself eating them on a regular basis.
  • Margarita. Tequila + triple sec + lime juice, served on the rocks. Nowadays, they are served in many different ways – flavoured, iced and all very delicious.
  • Paloma. Tequila mixed with sparkling lemon, what Mexican’s tend to think of when they picture drinks involving tequila.
  • Horchata. A traditional drink made with rice, almonds, cinnamon and sugar. To me it tasted like a chilled chai latte.
  • Tropical fruit. Usually in abundance in any tropical country, we saw mango, banana, coconut, pineapple, papaya… convenient, delicious, healthy snacks!
  • Tacos al pastor. One of the most famous dishes, ‘al pastor’ translates to ‘in the style of the shepherd’. To serve, think strips of meat are sliced off a spit, placed on a tortilla and topped with onion, coriander and fresh pineapple. My mouth is watering at the memory.
  • IMG_4522Tostadas. Simple yet delicious, basically they are baked/fried tortillas, served either plain or topped with cheese, meet, beans and anything else that tickles your fancy. Kind of like a pizza base, it is a great way to utilise slightly stale tortillas!
  • Chicharron. Unlike in New Zealand, where you only see pork crackling if someone successfully makes it when they cook a roast, you can find bags of crackling here, in amongst where you buy the potato chips. It is frequently found as a topping on salads, tacos, and of course, tostadas.
  • Enchiladas. An ancient dish evolved from when the Mayans used to wrap corn tortillas around small fish. Nowadays are enchiladas are filled with anything from meat to seafood, beans and vegetables, layered with cheese and chilli and baked until cooked through.
  • Quasedillas. Pronounced ‘kasss – aaaa- deeee- yaaah’.
  • Guacamole. Something I cannot get enough of, especially when tacos are in abundance. Combine avocado, onion, tomato, lemon juice, chilli, garlic and if you are feeling adventurous, a dash of tequila and devour with tortilla chips – one of my favourite foods in the world.
  • Frijoles. Translates to beans, I saw how popular these are with the Mexican people when I lived with Hector. They are usually cooked with water and onion very slowly, until they are soft. Sometimes they are mashed and recooked (ie. Re-fried beans).
  • Empanada. South America’s answer to the meat pie, it is a meat filled pastry.

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Hawaii: The Aloha State

Hang loose, or as they say in Hawaii, ‘shaka’. A chilled American state that is rich in Pacific traditions and culture (due to its strong identification with Polynesian history) and combined with its classic American tourism, it seems to be a holiday destination common with travellers all over the world. Time constraints meant I only had enough time to visit Oahu, but I was determined to make the most of it.

Landing in Honolulu airport, I walked outside and located myself a shuttle into Waikiki for $US16. It took about 45 minutes to get to Waikiki – and this was at about 10pm at night. My return trip to the airport only took me 25 minutes, although I would allow at least an hour if you were travelling to or from at rush hour. I got dropped at the Polynesian Hostel Beach Club Hostel which was pretty cheap by Hawaiian standards (US$25/night) and had not much going for it except its location (very close to the beach and the main Waikiki strip). The ventilation was minimal, the bathrooms were revolting, and the staff seemed clueless – but I guess you pay for what you get, and we didn’t plan on spending any time there.

Indulge

One of my favourite things about visiting tropical countries is that I know fresh fruit will be a plenty – and I was not to be disappointed. Everything from strawberries to papaya (which I’ve since learnt is the first tropical fruit I can take or leave) and of course pineapple (unsurprising given Oahu is home to the Dole plantation). Diamond Head Cove Health Bar radiates energy; fresh, colour and healthiness are all in abundance. Further, Tucker and Bevvy’s have a delightful array of nourishing choices, all made right in front of you (and located a mere 2 minute walk from our hostel).

While it is hard to escape the inherent commercialism that is Waikiki, it is definitely still possible to excite ones taste buds and indulge in some delicious food. My first fruit indulgence came at the Hula Grill, which is attached to the Outrigger Resort. It came as a delicious fruit platter with a pina colada dipping sauce, and a view to die for. It had a pretty varied menu, with something to suit all ages.

My flatmate had recommended Island Vintage Coffee for their acai bowls (delectable bowls of healthy goodness) but I would have been at ease eating anything off their menu – it is a must visit for brunch. It is located upstairs along Kalakaua Avenue; a wide boulevard lined with trees, shops and of course, tourists. Island Vintage Coffee also has a wee gift shop with lots of beautiful hand-crafted treats, that I would have stocked up on had I been going back to New Zealand sooner.

We decided we couldn’t be in America and not visit the institution that is the Hard Rock Café. Decked out in guitars, TVs, and other rock’n’roll memorabilia, the place was massive, and a lot of fun. We were forewarned about the portion sizes, so we shared the fajitas as a main, followed up with dessert. Delicious, classic, and the walk home was well-needed to ensure that we didn’t go to bed feeling sick!

We spent a while looking for a place to drink, and eventually learnt that if you just walk through one of the copious numbers of resorts, beach bars basically dot the length of the beach.

Culture and History

It is hard to say no to doing a Luau when in Hawaii. We signed up with Germaine’s Luau – a cringe-worthy, but totally worthwhile experience. For $US70 we got picked up from our hostel, driven out to Kapolei Beach, where we took part in a full back-yard style luau, watched a cultural performance by some incredible dancers, indulged in a full American-style buffet (with 3 free cocktails) and got dropped at our door at the end of the night. Our “escort” for the night was an elderly lady called Georgie, who was so full of enthusiasm that we almost couldn’t cope. The bus trip was about an hour long, and we were pretty relieved to see it end. We received shell lai’s and had our photos taken before we found seats at the picnic style tables set up in front of the stage. We watched some local men dig up the ENORMOUS pig that had been slow roasting under the ground all day, and which we were about to tuck into as part of our dinner. The show consisted of approximately 5 female, and 4 male dancers, a female host and a band. They were extremely rhythmic, colourful, interactive and their energy was highly contagious. There was ample opportunity for the crowd to get up onstage and learn various types of dancing. Through dance they showed various island cultures; Taihiti, Samoa, Fiji, Cook Islands, and interestingly, New Zealand. For dinner there was so many things to try – we had to be extremely tactical about stacking our plates. There was pineapple slaw, rice noodles in broth, fish, chicken, pork, beef, macaroni and potato salad, fruit salad, taro paste (“poi”), coconut haupia (dessert), chocolate cake and much more. We were so full afterwards, that we wanted to sleep the whole bus ride home (unsuccessful, thanks to Georgie). I won the most beautiful, authentic lai when I answered a question during a pop quiz, so the bus trip wasn’t all bad!

I was extremely excited for Pearl Harbour. After reading Unbroken and watching the Pearl Harbour movie, it is a piece of history which I find extremely interesting, and was looking forward to seeing in the flesh the remnants of the events of December 7, 1941. We had been given conflicting advice about our desired time of arrival – apparently the queues can be astronomical, tickets sell out (there is only a set number per day) and everyone says to get in early. We left at 8am and travelling on the local bus, we arrived 1.5 hours later. It was SO slow. I would recommend hiring a car, finding a cheap tour, or walking part of the way before getting on the bus. We hadn’t taken bags as we were told the queues to check them in tend to be massive (they weren’t), but it meant we could head straight in and get our (free) tickets for the Arizona Memorial. We explored the site; plaques described the weapons, and other equipment used during the war, before we got in line for the ferry at our designated time. First we watched an extremely well-made movie that retold the story of that horrific day, although it was slightly one sided in that it left out crucial historic events, such as the Hiroshima bombing. Incredibly interesting regardless though, and afterwards we stepped onto the ferry which took us to the memorial where we could get off and check it out. It was essentially a big white platform (partially funded by Elvis Presley) which looked down onto the overturned ship. A room at the end contained inscriptions with the names of the 1,777 people who had died there, as well as any later deaths of people who had been left to rest at the memorial. It was a highly touching experience, and it can be further enhanced by the hiring of audio guides and visiting the other memorials at the site. Fun fact: the name arises because oysters were once farmed there.

Explore

Waikiki Beach is nothing short of crowded. Once we fought for and won ourselves a spot, we kicked back in the sun for a few hours. The beach is steep – one of those situations where everyone looks uncoordinated as they clamber out of the water, but the water was cool and refreshing.

There is high-end shopping available at your fingertips, as well as all of the usual American chains. About a half hour walk away is the Ali Moana Shopping Centre, an enormous indoor/outdoor plaza with levels and levels of shops. It is just across the way from the Ali Moana beach, which is slightly less populated than the main Waikiki strip.

Diamond Head is a crater located at the far end of Waikiki Beach. It is about a two to three hour round trip walk from Waikiki, but you can catch buses to the crater itself, from which it is about 20 minutes to the summit. We opted to walk the whole way, and although the views were beautiful, the number of people on the track really diluted the experience. The earlier you get there the better I think, unless you don’t mind bumper-to-bumper foot traffic, and queuing for a picture of the view.

Discover the North Shore

We hired a car from the Outrigger Resort to do our own exploration of Oahu Island. To get out of the city,  Belinda navigated; I drove, and we eventually made our way onto the highway. We reached Hanauma Bay which is renowned for snorkelling. It is supposed to be extremely sheltered due to being formed within a volcanic cone. Unfortunately for us, the entire reserve is closed on Tuesdays. So we continued onwards and upwards towards Makapu’u Lighthouse. It was no longer than an hour walk (return trip) and provided us with impressive panoramic views of the landscape and ocean surrounding the Hawaiian coastline. Between December and May it is also a popular spot to watch whales migrating, at times there can be hundreds! Continuing on, we followed directions given to us by a friend, and we hit Lanikai Beach – which was the epitome of a tropical beach: crystal blue water, white sand, palm trees, next to no people, and a reef to snorkel on. After our tummies reminded us that they had been neglected, we continued driving until we found Giovanney’s Shrimp Truck. For $13.50 we indulged in a shared feast of steaming hot, creamy, garlic shrimp – upon which I quickly mastered the art of de-shelling. This was followed up by some shaved ice, which seems to be everywhere in Hawaii. Next stop around the coastline is Turtle Bay; numerous movies (including Forgetting Sarah Marshall) have been filmed here, and it is easy to see why. We were immediately greeted by immaculate grounds, golf carts, and palm trees. We parked up and wandered around, through the bar, past the pools, spa, wedding set-up, along the beach, until we had done a complete circuit of its exterior. It oozed romance, and perfection.

From here, as a surfing enthusiast, Belinda knew her way well to the beach that was home to the Banzai Pipeline. On this particular day the waves had been determined to small for the competition to run, however there was still heaps of surfers in the water (and the waves were certainly not small by normal person standards) so we sat and soaked up the vibe for a while. Behind us were the sponsors’ houses, so the likes of Volcom, Ripcurl, Red Bull etc all had big beach houses built just beyond the sand dunes where the pro surfers stayed during the competition. Beyond this beach is Waimea Bay, which is where another of the pro surf tournaments is held earlier in the year. A little further along you hit Haleiwa, where we beached until the sun went down, before I had my first fish taco at a cute little place called Cholo’s and a gelato from IL Gelato (next door) for dessert. Reluctantly we headed back to Waikiki where we dropped the car off (we had opted to drop it off after hours, meaning we were under no rush to bring it back).

Other things to do

Museums and galleries are plentiful, as well as the Honolulu Zoo being located at the end of Waikiki Beach (closest to Diamond Head end).

Other things to look out for include the licence plates with the rainbow on them as well as the ABC convenience stores which are located approximately every 4 shops in Waikiki. These shops sell everything from fruit and souvenirs, to alcohol and pharmaceuticals. You won’t actually need to look out for one, as they are pretty hard to miss!

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