Playa Del Carmen

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$250 bought me my flight from New York to Cancun. The airport in Cancun was pretty basic, and to our frustration every single one of the ATMs at the airport was broken. Thankfully, the machine didn’t eat either of our cards (others weren’t so lucky), and Hailee was carrying some leftover US dollars. The conversion rate was easy; basically 10 pesos equalled $1. At the airport we jumped on an ADO bus for 68km to Playa del Carmen – it took about an hour, cost $16 (prices fluctuate depending on the season) and was extremely spacious and cool (which I was already grateful for, after only 10 minutes in the mild Mexican heat!). There are two bus stations in Playa del Carmen – the ‘old station’ is on the corner of Juarez and 5th Avenue and the ‘new station’ is essentially at the opposite corner of the town, right next to the big supermarket MEGA, and Walmart.

We stayed at Tres Mundos Hostel – which was clean, friendly, and quiet. It was within close proximity to both the beach and 5th Avenue (Quinta Avenida) and the weather was so warm that the cold showers were welcomed. The main street, 5th Avenue, is one row back from the beach and has fancy all-inclusive resorts at each end. It is incredibly festive, crowded with high-end shops, souvenir stalls and over-priced bars and restaurants. The streets are thick with American accents, and little Mexican men promoting their souvenirs by telling you it will help you find a Mexican boyfriend.  The souvenir shops run by these cheeky Mexicans are a source of entertainment on their own. You can find everything from sombreros, ceramics, blankets, leather, food, magnets and of course, tequila. As soon as we set foot in one of these places, I knew it wouldn’t be long before I gave into the temptation of these colourful delights.

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Venture two streets back from the beach, and you are already hitting local territory – with street food, carts, and houses. So it is relatively small, and doesn’t take long to explore by foot, which I loved. Running perpendicular to the beach is Avenida Juarez – which has lots of smaller shops, where prices tend to be more negotiable. There are also lots of food stalls, and a small food market. It has an entirely different vibe to 5th Avenue, and feels far more authentic. At the south end of 5th Avenue I located a bunch of shops I’d adored in Europe – such as Pull & Bear, Zara and Bershka and at the northern end were more shops, including Forever 21.

The beach was fine – but for a New Zealander (inherent beach snobs) it was overcrowded and a little bit dirty. We spent a few well-needed days by the beach. We were craving sun, sea and sand after our week in New York. The weather was very temperamental – always hot, but there were numerous patches of rain throughout the day. This was fine; it provided opportunity to pop up into town for a quick bite, or to browse the shops.

Our first Mexican meal we wanted to be authentic – therefore we had to find somewhere selling Mexican food amongst all the Italian, French and other touristy cuisines on offer. We settled on a place called La Fisheria – which at the time I didn’t find too expensive (given the exchange rate) but I soon learnt it was more of an upper-end restaurant, definitely targeted at tourists. Despite that, the menu was mouth-watering, and the food fantastic; my yellow fin tuna tostada with mango guacamole was almost worth dying for.

An avid blogger myself, I always take enjoyment out of visiting places that other people recommend on their travel blogs. In Playa del Carmen, we had been advised to eat at El Fogan, which is on the far side of town by the supermarket (only about 5 blocks). We arrived, and it was buzzing with people. We sat down to find the entire menu was in Spanish. Unfortunately, I was not as bilingual as I’d thought, so we had to piece our way through the menu, still being a little unsure of what we actually ordered I got tacos el pastille; the beginning of a trend, and certainly, the beginning of the end. For about $1, I got two tacos, with the meat coming off the rotisserie (commonly seen in kebab shops in NZ). Another restaurant recommended by a blogger was Le Cororela. This place was located near the south end of 5th Avenue; cheap, authentic and delicious, we shared tacos, enchiladas and a quesadilla – washed down with a green smoothie (had to get my nutrients from somewhere!).

[Nearby is the Xcaret Eco Park, which is a popular tourist destination, especially for families, and is home to many activities (for example cenotes, snorkelling), wild-life, beaches and eateries. Also, just a ferry ride away is the island of Cozumel, which although we didn’t have time to visit, Hailee spoke highly of it – a great opportunity to hire quad bikes and do some exploring, as well as a world-class destination for snorkelling and diving. It costs approximately $25 and takes 45 minutes to reach by ferry.]

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The Mighty Mekong Delta

We flew from Da Nang Airport to Ho Chi Minh City. At the airport there were no green and white taxis waiting, so we (stupidly?) climbed into a supposedly reputable alternative (‘Vinasun’) who took us on a massive detour, eventually instructing us to get out at a random bus stop; thankfully, we refused to comply and finally we were dropped at the bus station. Bus tickets to Can Tho were purchased, and a chubby little Vietnamese boy kept us all well entertained until our bus (mini-van) arrived. Little did we know, this trip was about to make every other journey we’d endured seem first class.

We squeezed into the back row of a minivan, where we could not physically fit shoulder to shoulder. There was no air-conditioning, rather a mere ‘air-flow’, and the temperature was so hot outside it was virtually unbearable to have the windows open. On the trip we befriended two Americans (Sarah and Katie) and and a Frenchie (Julian). After an abrupt stop in the middle of nowhere (a few kilometres out of Can Tho), we were forced onto the side of the road with the van driver quickly racing off into the distance. We had barely comprehended what had happened when Summer realised in the sudden rush she had left her handbag on the van (containing her wallet, passport, eyeglasses and passport).

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Thankfully, I had experienced losing a passport before so we managed to keep a lid on what could have been a very stressful situation (we had plans to cross through to Cambodia in the next few days). Fortunately one of the men at the hotel spoke relatively good English, so he was able to help us by phoning the bus company (somewhat bizarrely, James had been given, and for some reason kept, the company’s business card). It was a very confusing situation; we finally pieced together that the bag had been located, although the wallet was now missing, and there was only a small possibility the passport would be returned. We tried to keep Summer distracted; practically forcing her out of the hotel for dinner and to explore the flower markets and the square of the Ho Chi Minh statue. We thought we were people-watching (there was so many adorable, hyper-active Vietnamese children); it turns out the people were watching us – we were inundated with requests for photos. We convinced Summer that going to the floating market early the following morning was totally worth it; at least that way, if we had to go back to Ho Chi Minh the following day (to visit the NZ Embassy) at least our trip to the Mekong wouldn’t have been a complete waste of time. Back at the hotel, we all struggled to sleep and the emotions we felt when we heard a knock on the door accompanied by ‘passport is here’ were beyond ecstatic. Summer and I raced downstairs to find a lady on a motorbike with her baby, holding Summer’s bag. We had been advised to tip generously (despite Summer’s wallet being taken) but it was a small price to pay in the scheme of things.

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Our alarms went off before 5am, and we made our way down to the foyer to meet the others before heading down to the riverside. Julian successfully bartered us a deal – we climbed aboard a boat and set off down the river for about 40 minutes in the dark before we witnessed a beautiful sunrise. Eventually we arrived at the Cai Rang market; the biggest floating market in the Mekong Delta. After floating through the market, our driver made us get out at some rice-paper making farm/cafe for an hour – needless to stay none of were impressed by this potential scam. Julian argued convincingly on our behalf, and so we got back in the boat and headed back to the market. There were massive boats anchored, with flags waving high in the high advertising what commodities they each had for sale. Smaller boats were maneuvering their way through the larger boats, bartering and trading various goods. For breakfast, the group stopped at a floating restaurant – although Summer and I refrained from eating until we got back to the hotel.

We booked our tickets to Rach Gia – to our delight we were put on an actual bus, where we had at least one seat per person. Upon our arrival at the bus station we were ushered off into a minivan, and although no-one had any idea what was going on, we went along with it. Poor James was squished into the back seat, and Summer and I had the ‘luxury’ of sitting in the front – our driver honked at literally anything and everything, and kept yelling in frantic Vietnamese to the people sitting behind by us. We finally worked out that the driver was dropping us at the station so we could transfer buses to get to Ha Tien (unbeknownst to us why there wasn’t just a mutual station). This last bus was about as local as you could get – Summer and I could barely fit our knees behind the seats, so I have no idea how James coped behind us – especially once a Vietnamese lady came and sat next to him. There was people cramped on stools in the aisles, and the bus made about a million stops. Eventually we arrived and opted to walk into town as opposed to catching a taxi – we’d had enough of bartering for the time being.

For dinner, a bunch of us from the hotel went to the well known Oasis Bar – highly raved about in Lonely Planet and on the Internet, owned by the only expat (English) living in the area. Not only was the food incredible, but the owner was a wealth of knowledge, helping us plan our trip across the Cambodian border in the morning. After informing us of a number of options we established that it would be best for us to leave at 6am and cross with 3 of his friends on their motorbikes – we felt like refugees. The border crossing was ridiculously quick (probably due to us being the only ones there at that time) and then we climbed aboard yet another minivan – this time to Sihanoukville.

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[We had heard so much about all the different towns in the Mekong Delta and were very excited to explore our way through. I had wanted to do a home-stay in Vinh Long, and we had also heard great things about Ben Tre, Phu Quoc Island and Chau Doc. However, the pain of losing Summers passport meant that in the end, we could not wait to just get out of the place, and have a fresh start in Cambodia.]