Monday, 29 October 2012

Monday photo - 29th October



This week's Monday photo comes from an airport hanger - not at all exciting until you realise that it houses the famous Terracotta warriors of China. Despite our less than relaxing experience there, the life-sized figurines lined up in perfect rows were a sight to behold. Trenches surrounded not only warriors but horses and full-sized chariots, and with every face unique, there was no way you could possibly become bored.

Thursday, 25 October 2012

On our way to... Greece!

 
Pinned Image
Picture via Kileen Tayla on Pinterest


When I was a child, there were two countries that completely captivated me. My reading books of choice were packed with magical stories of gods and goddesses, all set within a backdrop of giant structures reaching up towards the sky. In these places nature was equally as dramatic - whether blowing gritty sand into huge storms or lashing up waves on a dark sea.

I would spend hours buried in a mixture of fictional accounts and non-fiction reference books, trying to work out the line between the two, so interwoven in ancient society. When a family member visited both countries, I eagerly poured over postcards and imagined myself in their place.

It's no surprise that as soon as I could afford to travel further than the odd short trip within central Europe, I shot off to Egypt, and have revisited this amazing country again since then. I'm sure it won't be long before I'm called back there - there's still so much I have yet to explore, and the stories from my childhood have never lost their appeal.

But for all the places I've been - 40 countries and counting - I'd never set foot on the second land of my childhood dreams. I've travelled further than I ever imagined I would, and set my eyes on sights I didn't even know existed as a child. And yet the place that was right there at the top of my wish list, and right within Europe, passed me by. Until now.

Finally, after years and years of convincing myself to hit the furthest places first whilst I can and then gradually work back inwards, the pull was too strong, and I am on my way to... Greece! Two weeks in the warm autumn heat, completely centred around archaeological sites both on the mainland and Crete, in a tiny car.

I can't wait!

Image via Pinterest
 

Monday, 22 October 2012

Monday photo - 22nd October


 When imagining SE Asia, the distinct temples of Cambodia's Angkor district probably spring to mind. With intricate detail and a unique style, they had fired my imagination long before actually setting eyes on them.

Thursday, 18 October 2012

Images of Central America: A photo-blog

My weeks spent in Central America were ones I'll never forget. Superb archaeological sites sit within diverse natural environments; extreme activities got my blood pumping and the waters of both the Caribbean and Pacific were rich with colourful fish. Such a variety of things to do meant that there was no chance of the 'travel fatigue' that can sometimes be felt after a lengthier time away. As usual, I took hundreds upon hundreds of photos - here are just a few that I felt summed up our travels through this incredible region.

Even a heavy mist, raging winds and heavy rain couldn't keep us away from the zip lines in Monteverde

After excitedly glimpsing sloths high up in the trees, we were staggered to come across a baby crawling along the ground right in front of us

 
A brief break between rapids on the river Pacuare in Costa Rica

Guatemala truly was the land of volcanoes, surrounding us on all sides in Antigua
 
Colourful buildings line Antigua's streets
 
Tikal was my favourite archaeological site

The flight over the Blue Hole was like gazing into a huge eye

The jungle threatens to envelop Palenque, creeping ever closer

Archaeology was abundant when driving around the Yucatan peninsula

Mexico City was the perfect ending to the trip, where amazing architecture met a cosmopolitan centre


 

Tuesday, 16 October 2012

Mexico: Do's and Don'ts!


Last on the list is Mexico - chock full of ruins, varied landscapes and dynamic cities. You could spend months here and only touch the surface of what the country has to offer, and with barely a fortnight we limited ourselves to just a couple of regions. Here's the final in the series of tips and advice for this summer's trip...


Do's

- Hire a car. If you are staying around the Yucatan peninsula, then a car is the best way to go. The roads are in great condition, other drivers are generally considerate and it's easy to navigate yourself between towns and archaeological sites. Having your own set of wheels also enables you to pay a visit to those attractions that are far our of the way, and have a whole set of ruins all to yourself, as well as arriving at the most popular places well in advance of the tour groups.


- Gorge yourself on the delicious food Mexico has to offer. To be honest, I don't think I could bear to look at a plate of refried beans, nachos and guacamole for a long time yet, but until the food fatigue sets in, Mexico is the perfect place to indulge. It may be different for Americans, but coming from a country where Mexican food is not particularly popular, being able to eat moist fajitas, crispy tortilla chips and warming soups was a daily pleasure. My personal favourite was the incredible sweet and sour sauce (nothing like the Chinese version) that came slathered on top of soft pork. Yum...

- Form your own opinion. As I mentioned in a previous post, I was very disappointed at the portrayal of Chichen Itza in guidebooks and online. Yes it is busy, as you would expect the most popular attraction in Mexico to be. But the almost pretentious air surrounding it just isn't a fair reflection of the site.


Don'ts

- Be scared of Mexico City. Common sense goes a long way - being out on the streets very late at night isn't the best idea, and I've always found the behaviour of the locals to be the best indicator of how to act yourself. However, the country's capital is a buzzing, vibrant place, full of treasures to discover. We only had four days there, and have both expressed a desire to go back as soon as we can, taken by the atmosphere and friendliness.


- Miss a visit to a cenote. We were so absorbed by all the history the country has to offer, that we only stopped off at the Grand Cenote by chance. It turned out to be one of the most interesting places we visited in the whole of Mexico. The water was an unearthly shade of vivid blue, the stalactites hung low and sharp, and the icy water provided the perfect break from the humidity outside. Highly recommended - just don't forget your snorkel!


Miss any posts on Mexico? Find them all here:

A glimpse into the world of the Aztecs at Teotihuacan
How I unexpectedly adored Mexico City
The jungle ruins of Palenque
Visiting Chichen Itza
Archaeological sites of the Yucatan
Coastal ruins and an almost-hurricane

 

Monday, 15 October 2012

Monday photo - 15th October



 Visiting the Moai on Easter Island a few years ago was a dream come true for me. Day after day we drifted around the island, seeking out as many majestic statues as we could and marvelling at their presence. The weather-worn stone looked even more impressive backed by a brilliant blue sky.

Saturday, 13 October 2012

Belize: Do's and Don'ts!


Belize is easily the most laid-back country I've ever been to, and certainly one of the friendliest too. If it wasn't for the intense heat, I could lose weeks island hopping and popping in and out of the water. Unfortunately, we had just a week to explore this turquoise paradise. Here are some tips for making the most of all Belize has to offer...

Do's

- Spend as much time in and on the water as possible! Whether it's snorkeling, diving or kayaking, the crystal clear warm waters are a playground for those who love wet activities. It isn't cheap, but well worth every penny. My favourite trip was to shark ray alley, where huge sting rays glided over the sandy floor and nurse sharks swam around us in huge groups. I didn't want to leave...


- Try to find accommodation on the beach if heading for a Caye. We were initially put off by the high prices quoted on the web, but beach huts can be found for a bargain if you are willing to search and move away from the well-trodden paths. Although our hut was a good 30 thirty walk from the town centre, the slow wander home after dinner each night, watching rays slip between sea grass in the gloom, form some of my favourite memories of our time there.

- Stretch the budget for a bird's eye view over the Blue Hole if you can. Seeing the great eye from the air was breathtaking, and although it was an extremely expensive morning, it's a once in a lifetime opportunity.


Don'ts

- Underestimate the cost of diving and snorkeling in Belize. Although it's still something I'd recommend, I was staggered by the amount companies wanted for day trips. Compared to other famous diving spots in SE Asia, Belize is very much over the top. The $500+ for a 45 minute Blue Hole dive was just too much for us to stomach, and the trips we took set us back more between us than our whole stay in Costa Rica. Choose carefully, assess your priorities, but do go on at least one trip - the water is perfect and the wildlife spectacular.

- Expect Belize to be representative of the rest of Central America. History and immigration has resulted in a wonderful Caribbean vibe unlike anything else we encountered, where the primary language spoken to us switched to English and Reggeton music pumped from huge speakers in the evenings, reflecting the island atmosphere.


More posts on our time in Belize can be found here:

The Blue Hole: A photo-blog
Snorkeling with sharks, rays and turtles
 

Thursday, 11 October 2012

Guatemala: Do's and Don'ts!


When we first starting planning our travels in Central America, Guatemala was high on the list for one main reason: Tikal. The site far exceeded my expectations and more, but was matched by vast lakes, high volcanoes and friendly locals. Here are my tips for getting the most out of a visit to this amazing country.

Do's

- Hike a volcano. Guatemala is full of them, so there isn't really any reason not to spend a day trudging up a steep slope. If you strike it lucky with the weather then the views are incredible, the air cool (if a little sulphurous...) and the dry, pumiced landscape alien. And what could possibly be better than roasting a marshmallow in a fumarole?!


- Spend some time in beautiful Antigua. As well as being the perfect jumping off point for day trips in the region, the city itself is dazzling. Wandering through the maze of streets, brightly-coloured buildings against brilliant blue skies, I felt relaxed and calm. Bursting at the seams with delicious restaurants, markets and cafes, the city balances traditional with modern perfectly. The overall atmosphere reminded me of Cuzco, another city that I loved, so perhaps I was biased from the start...


- Stay in Tikal national park. The hotels are expensive and getting up at 2am was tough. But the chance to sit atop a temple, gazing out over the jungle as the sun's rays gently lit the sky was one of the best moments of the whole trip. The mist rolled like orange-tipped waves, revealing both the tall ancient structures and the wildlife who call it home, as howler monkeys woke the forest up. Truly spectacular.


Don'ts

- Underestimate the distance between the main attractions. It takes time and patience to travel through Guatemala, up and down extremely windy roads that seem to go on forever. Tikal in particular is a long way from anywhere else, deep in the jungle. Plan in whole days for getting around if travelling by land.


- Forget to pack some sturdy walking books. Guatemala is a land of hills, the volcanic landscape resulting in sharp ups, and knee-breaking downs. Even streets in the towns can be on steep gradients, but the resulting views made the aches all worthwhile.

- Miss the cultural aspect of the country. It's easy to get swept away in Guatemala's natural beauty, but the truly fascinating experiences we had were to be found in churches and village houses, where the combination of Catholicism and traditional ancestor worship has resulted in a balance I hadn't expected to see. 


Want to read more about Guatemala? Check out these posts:

Magical Tikal
Volcanoes, lakes and a picture-perfect town

 

Tuesday, 9 October 2012

Costa Rica: Do's and Don'ts!


Central America was one of the loveliest regions of the world I've had the opportunity to visit, and is definitely an area I'd like to return to one day. Kicking off the usual tips posts, here's my advice for a visit to the first of our four countries: Costa Rica.

Do's

- Hire guides for the national parks. If you want to maximise your chances of glimpsing the wide range of wildlife that Costa Rica has to offer, then an experienced guide is the way to go. Inexpensive and often loaded up with all manner of gadgetry, our guides helped us spot animals we would have completely bypassed, from well camouflaged vipers resting on leaves barely inches from us, to sloths and toucans high up in trees. And that's without mentioning the passion, enthusiasm and great of humour that comes for free.


- Indulge in some extreme activities. Costa Rica is home to some top white water rafting, suspended bridges swinging gently at the top of forests and fast zip lines that make you feel like a gliding bird. Hikes are filled with wildlife, and if surfing is your thing, the waves are not for the faint-hearted. Conquer your fears and give some of it a go!


- Pack ready for all weather conditions. The coast was hot and humid, the city warm and breezy and the cloud forests cool and extremely wet. Bring light layers and a good set of waterproofs and you'll be ready for any sudden change.



Don'ts

- Only restrict yourselves to the beaches. Sure, the coast is lovely, and the beaches more appealing than most. I'm a big believer in spending time abroad wherever and however it suits you, but I have to admit to feeling a little sorry for the people we met who were restricted to the seaside. Costa Rica is a small and easily accessible country, and a few hours drive can take you high into the cloud forests or deep onto waterfall-filled trails for a day trip to remember.


- Forget to pack a pair of binoculars! (like we did...) Vibrant birds, small rodents, huge lizards, sloths and monkeys are all plentiful around the country, although they tend to sit high in the canopy. If it wasn't for the binoculars and large scopes of our guides, we may well have missed half of them. With the birds in particular, details only reveal themselves once you can observe them up close.


Miss any posts on our time in Costa Rica? Find them all here:

The wildlife of Costa Rica: A photo-blog
A close encounter with a Sloth
The cloud forests of Monteverde
Arriving in Costa Rica and a very active first day
 

Monday, 8 October 2012

Monday photo - 8th October


As a result of booking the cheapest flight possible, we found ourselves with a whole day to spare in Madrid on our way to Argentina last December. Completely unfamiliar with the city, we aimed in the general direction of the palace and wandered around, enjoying the bright winter sun.

The palace itself was a great place to kill a couple a couple of hours, made even better by getting in for free. The light was just starting to fade as we left, the soft blue contrasting nicely with the soft whites and greys of the building. Hopefully one day I'll be able to return to Madrid and experience more of this beautiful city.

Saturday, 6 October 2012

A glimpse into the world of the Aztecs at Teotihuacan


Our final sight-seeing destination of the summer was Teotihuacan, the famous Aztec site situated not far outside of Mexico City. After a smooth and straightforward metro and bus combination, we arrived at the site on a beautiful clear day, ready to climb some pyramids. Although boasting similarities to nearby (relatively...) Mayan temples, there are many differences, and I'm glad we had the opportunity to visit a couple of Aztec areas too.


After exploring the ground level, mostly set along a straight road stretching far from the entrance to the Pyramid of the Moon at the far end, we scaled the pyramid of the Sun (the largest at the site) for far-stretching views across the countryside. Although the site was relatively crowded, the different levels of the towering structure resulted in everyone spreading out to find their own little pocket of space, and we sat for ages, making the most of a new perspective on the area.



After wandering up and down worn stone steps, staggered by the symmetry and uniformity of the whole site, we cooled off in the museum, another fantastic set of exhibits that offered a glimpse into the many artifacts without being too overwhelming.


Visiting Teotihuacan was a wonderful experience, and a superb way to round off our Central American extravaganza. A couple more days in Mexico City, and we were ready to head home, although it is definitely a region that I would love to return to again one way.

 

Thursday, 4 October 2012

How I unexpectedly adored Mexico City


I have to confess: I wasn't expecting to like Mexico City much. I know it isn't in any way fair, but for me one big city tends to look like another big city - there's always plenty in do in the way of museums, eating out and symbols of national identity, but at the same time they are busy, noisy and very urban. I think perhaps it comes from living right next to a huge city myself.


So my hopes weren't too high as we stepped off the bus after a night travelling from Palenque during which the bus had been hit with wind and rain for hours. We pulled into the huge, bustling bus station, tired and still a little damp from the torrential downpour in the jungle town, but with a few helpful directions, an incredibly easy and beautiful metro system (seriously - the cosmos decoration in one station with the ceiling lit with constellations was the most incredible I've ever seen) and a nice hotel at the end, the city was already starting to win me over.


The central square is especially lovely - framed on all sides by stunning architecture, the cathedral and palace, it hosts a whole range of events and was never empty of diversions. Every afternoon Aztec dancers spent hours pounding the stone to the drum beat, blessing locals bringing offerings with thick incense, their bodies vividly painted in a rainbow of colours. Their position, right next to the cathedral, reflected the religious acceptance we'd noticed throughout Central America, as those coming in and out of the cathedral weaved through those waiting in line for an Aztec blessing. Walking through the maze of streets extending from the historic centre revealed more interesting buildings and architecture, alongside lots of restaurants, cafes and bars to wile away hours.


We visited the palace with its famous painted murals depicting Mexico's history (and were told off for accidentally taking a picture in a no photography area - whoops!) and tried not to disturb a mass in the cathedral. Unfortunately, we forgot about the altitude revelling in the cooler temperatures, and ended up with a distinct red glow to our faces after the first day...


The most impressive attraction was definitely the Aztec museum just off the central square, combining exposed outdoor ruins with a fantastic exhibit inside. It was a superb museum - not so packed that it became overwhelming, but still full of great displays, and just the right amount of information attached.


After a packed trip through Central America, it was also nice just to relax and unwind before the long journey home, and with a lovely hotel, it was the ideal location to stop for a few days. As for the reported problems in Mexico City, we were fortunate and didn't run into any issues, although it was interesting to see the streets completely cleared by around 10pm and the atmosphere changing dramatically. As with any other big city, a bit of common sense and following your instincts are the best protection.

There was just one more site on our list though, just a bus journey away from the city, that we were determined to see...