Isla Mujeres

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IMG_4747Literally translating to “Island of Women”, this colourful fishing village was my favourite stop on our journey through Mexico.  Just a short ferry ride from the mainland, it contrasts immensely to the fast-paced
chaotic tourism that comprises Cancun and I think is an absolute must-visit for everyone. For a set fare (about 80 pesos) the ferry terminal is just a short taxi ride away from the bus station. A return ticket to Isla costs about 136 pesos (with the brightly coloured ferry company Manaja) and the trip takes 25 minutes. For us, getting back to Cancun proved a little more difficult – for some reason (not sure if it is always like this) but the ferry queue was enormous. We were in line and there wasn’t enough space on the ferry, so we had to sit in the queue for another hour until the next ferry arrived.

One of the coolest hostels I have ever experienced is Poc Na. Recommended to us by friends, it was located right on the beach, with a dive school attached, as well as offering free yoga, Spanish lessons, massages, beach volleyball and live music (to name just a few of the options) on a regular basis. It also offers various day trips and has a beach bar, a café, and spacious, clean rooms. The hostel is only a few blocks from Playa Norte. With warm blue water that is shallow for ages and heavenly cabanas (which get snapped up quickly!) it is definitely one of the best beaches on the island for swimming and sunning yourself.
The island itself is tiny, and extremely walkable. There is only about 16,000 permanent residents, basically all of whom which are involved in tourism in some way. IMG_4836The town is condensed at the northern end of the island (where the ferry drops you off) and is packed with bars, restaurants, and shops full of cute trinkets. Isla Mujeres is only about 8km long, and at its thinnest point it is possible to see from one side to the other.

I would definitely recommend hiring a golf cart as a fun and convenient way to see the island, visiting the far spots that you mayn’t otherwise reach, and viewing where the craggy cliffs meet the warm blue tones of the Caribbean. We hired one for 650 pesos (Poc Na has them available for hire, but they were sold out for the day already when we went) and attempted to cover every nook and cranny of the island. We passed Dolphin Discovery, the Turtle farm, explored the ruins at the southernmost point of the island, and stopped for a drink at a bar that overlooked the water (with beer “so cold it’ll make your teeth hurt!”).

Other places we ate at include Velazquez, which had simplistic décor (plastic tables and chairs) that was just perfect for this cute little place, overlooking the pier, boats and setting sun. For some reason, ordering a whole fresh fish felt like a necessity as we sat under the beachfront palapa (thatch roof). It was so delicious. The margaritas were enormous, and also delicious. Another spot overlooking the water is Bally Hoo. This place was a lot more formal in comparison (and its prices reflected that to some extent). The service was incredible – the waiter noted both of our names, and used them generously throughout the night. I had steak fajitas and a large mojito – it didn’t take us long to learn that the drinks in Isla were far bigger and stronger than anywhere else we had been. For dessert, I would definitely suggest indulging in the Spanish classic: Churros. At nham nham churros, a family owned and operated business; I splurged on a Nutella filled churro, and momentarily went to heavy. The place itself is cute too; a little food cart within the shop itself, and you can watch the churros being made from scratch. If your body is craving some vitamins and minerals I would head to Green Verde. Admittedly we didn’t make it here, but it was recommended to us a million times. It was a decent walk from the town centre and when we ventured there with the golf cart it was closed for the hour. I was pretty disappointed not to eat here, but c’est la vie.

I was ridiculously excited (and nervous) to get back into the water and do some diving. It had been almost been a year since I last went, and getting my equipment ready was quite a bit harder than I expected (increasing my nerves ten-fold). The boat was pretty small compared to other boats that I have been on (a few of us felt pretty sea sick), and running on Mexico time we were late in leaving. Isla is famous for whale sharks, however it was the wrong season for these gentle giants, and instead I got offered (if I was adventurous enough) to dive with some more ferocious bull sharks (I was nervous enough about the diving itself so I passed on that one!).

First we visited Musa (aka the Underwater Museum). Put in place by the people of Cancun, the museum was full of statues, grenades, cars and would have been incredibly awesome had there just been a few more fish/wild-life. This was my first experience where some of the members of my group had terrible dive etiquette (which must have been bad, for an amateur like myself to notice), for example pushing past each other (and me) underwater, swimming off without their buddies, and not knowing how to effectively communicate with the team. It was a little frustrating, and made me a bit panicky! Our second dive was along a reef at the south of the island. Again the sea-life was pretty disappointing, although we did spot some lionfish and barracuda. We were encouraged to swim through a long, dark, low cave; and although I almost self-induced claustrophobia, I was proud to say that I did it.

Take home message from this blog post: if you are in the vicinity, visit Isla Mujeres.

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French fusion: Luang Prabang

If you combine the Asian with the French, you might find yourself with something a little along the lines of Luang Prabang. It was such a cool place; it gave us a fantastic first impression of Laos. Knowing so little about Laos meant it didn’t take long to pick up an awful lot. Here is just a few of the things I learnt, and will predict that you also didn’t know about Laos:

  • It is a crime for a foreigner to have unmarital sex with a local.
  • They have a curfew of 11pm – after this time, pretty much everything shuts down, and the thing to do is to go bowling (yes, correctly heard- ten pin bowling).
  • The national dish is called Laap – and its basically minced meat, infused with a variety of herbs and spices.

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Some of my favourite activities include:

  • Utopia. If you are in Luang Prabang for even just a night, chances are you will hear of it. By morning, it offers yoga classes on the balcony overlooking the Mekong River (mesmerising experience, and great to do some exercise), by day it is a cafe offering a wide variety of seating and high quality food options. At night, it converts itself into the bar at which to be seen, with an outdoor volleyball court – and for those who know me, a huge source of entertainment. Alas, Utopia still shuts at 11pm, the time that the keener party-goers tie the laces on their bowling shoes.
  • In terms of food, obviously Utopia (which caters extremely well to both Asian and Western appetites), the stalls at the end of the night-market were fantastic, offering a delicious range of baguettes, crepes and fruit shakes. We befriended a stall owner, and became VIP customers over those few days.We also ate at Joma (and would again whilst in Asia) which served delicious salads and shakes (more Western style). Le Banneton is a delightful French cafe, serving the most deliciously made pastries and coffee – located on the other side of town, close to the stunning view point at which the Nham Khan meets the Mekong.
  • The night market. Come dusk, and the entire main street turns into a market – offering everything from food to art to whisky to jewellery and clothing, you could literally spend hours there. And unlike the markets we had experienced in Thailand, the vendors were far less pushy, preferring instead to just secure the sale. One morning Summer and I headed to the locals market, which sold fruit and veges, as well as all sorts of obscure treats (?!) including rats, squirrels, birds and catfish. We tried desperately to find a novelty food to try; I was on the hunt for snake, however with none of the aforementioned being overly appealing, we eventually settled (yet again) on some more foreign fruit.
  • Watching the monk ceremony. An early start is required, in order to secure your place along the roadside before the monks arrive. Because monks don’t have a source of income, they get fed by the offerings they receive from the community. So what they do in the early hours of the morning is walk along the roadside, each with a huge basket, and tourists (and some locals) have the opportunity to donate them food (and sometimes, money). They end up getting so much food that they have to offload it at various stations along the way, so if you don’t want to see your food removed from their basket, it pays to be tactical about what you give. The first morning we had fruit, and we soon realised that it was highly inappropriate, as it was going to be hard to share amongst so many monks, as well as the fact its rather indurable. The second time round, we just followed the crowd and bought some sticky rice from some of the local women selling it in the early hours of the morning – I would advise doing this, as it was easy to share amongst many monks, and obviously it’s a staple to their diet.
  • Pak Ou caves – a 27km scooter ride, the journey to and from was far more exciting than the cave itself.  Whilst cool to see, I would probably drop this from the activity list if there is any time restrictions to be had. You had to catch a boat across to the cave, which was exactly that; a series of caves set in limestone cliffs, made slightly more interesting by the copious amounts of Buddha figurines dispersed throughout. It was beautiful sure, but basically a non-event.
  • Kuang Si waterfall – located about 30km in the opposite direction, another fantastic scooter ride out and back. Don’t worry if you don’t have scooters though; every tuk-tuk driver will ask you if you want a ride. A multi-tiered cascade tumbling over limestone formations into menthol-green pools; the water was cold, but we just had to swim – and it was very refreshing. It was located through a bear sanctuary (which not only had the cutest bears, but was very informative about how bears are trafficked, commonly for the use of their bile in Ancient Chinese medicine).
  • Big Brother Mouse – an opportunity to go and meet some local students, allowing them to practice their English. We went thinking that would be grouped with young children, however it ended up being two boys around our age – and it was incredible to discover how different their lives were from ours. They had never visited the Kuang Si waterfall (which would have to be the most well known tourist activity in the city), all money they made was sent to their family by bus (as no bank accounts) and one of them, despite being the younger twin, was considered the older brother. It was one of the most heart-warming things I had done in a long time, and not only did I learn a lot, it was a lot of fun.
  • Right in the middle of Luang Prabang is a 100m high hill (known as Phu Si) and on the top is a Buddhist temple (known as Wat Tham Phou Si). It is definitely the view that is worth the climb, not the temple itself.
  • A hot day saw us make our way to La Pistache – a swimming pool and bar which was about 10 minutes walk from town. It made for a luxurious afternoon, and we were grateful for the pool in the humidity.

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