Roadtrip from Oaxaca City to the Coast

We really wanted to rent a car and drive to the coast, so after getting screwed by Europcar we went to Alamo. We had car rental insurance from our credit card company and had proof that they covered car rentals in Mexico. But this concept doesn’t seem to exist in Mexico. Multiple car rental companies wanted us to have a specific document that no one would give us. And when we asked where to obtain this document, no one could or would tell us. I would advice others not to believe the cheap rental car prices that are advertised for Oaxaca as the insurance is not included in the price advertised. A six day rental at Alamo was $200USD. We wanted to be on our own schedule and while the rental car was not cheap, the cost was offset, for us, by the five nights in Oaxaca City that were free on hotel points (thanks Holiday Inn).
We were nervous to take the bus after hearing so many horror stories of people getting sick and it being such a long drive up and down mountain sides (hence paying for the expensive rental car). But in hindsight, and after being on the twisty-turny mountain road all the way to the coast and back (and with all of the other experiences that I have had with twisty-turny mountain roads), I don’t think that we needed to have a rental car. The roads were not as treacherous as people had suggested. While it was a long drive, around 5.5 hours each way, the roads were in good condition and there was not a lot of traffic. If you do drive yourself, definitely beware of all of the topes (speed bumps) that are not always marked on the roads. Also, the buses that make the trip to and from the coast are the smaller colectivo-sized buses that only seat about 14 people not the massive tour buses that I would have expected.
The first stop on our roadtrip was Monte Alban which was lovely. It was also a lot larger than we expected so it was wonderful to be able to take our time and not feel rushed.
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We then drove to the ruins at Yagul. These were just as interesting and informative (both sites have informational plaques in Spanish, English, and a local language). Yagul was completely empty when we arrive and it was lovely to have the place to ourselves. At $65MXN per person, it wasn’t much cheaper than Monte Alban ($70MXN), but still a great stop to make.
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The ruins of Yagul.
We stayed the night in Mitla so that we could get to Hierve del Agua early the next morning. We found a few hotels in town including a brand new place called Hotel Carmelita. We had a double room with a private bath, hot water, tv, and wifi for $500MXN a night. The staff was very helpful and friendly. We asked for a dinner recommendation and were pointed towards a restaurant on the main square. We had a mole dish which was very tasty and the best chile rellano I’ve ever had. Our total bill for two entrees and one mezcal was $220MXN with tip.
The next morning we drove to Hierve del Agua. We paid the local entrance fee of $10MXN per person and then paid the federal entrance fee of $25MXN per person. Check out this blog for more information on driving there.
Once we parked, we hiked down for 20 minutes to the pools of sulfery water. We then hiked around to the top of the other petrified waterfall, the one in most of the photos. The path was mostly made of stone steps and was not difficult. It probably took us 25 minutes to get there and the views along the way were definitely worth it. There are free changing rooms as well as bathrooms ($3MXN) near the pools. If you can get there on your own, I would recommend getting there early. It opens at 9a.m. and from what we heard, the tour buses start arriving around 1p.m.
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A view of the pools.
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Hierve del Agua
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A view from below on one of the hiking trails.
We left Hierve del Agua and headed south. Because we were getting a late start, we decided to stop somewhere along the road for the night. With a little bit of research we found a place which was just perfect for us; La Puesta del Sol. They have a little collection of bungalows and rooms for rent just a one-minute drive outside the town San Juan del Pacifico. The room we stayed in was nice and cozy with satellite TV, hot water, breakfast, and a lovely view of the mountains. Wifi was extra and we opted to be off the grid for the night. At $400MXN for the night, we couldn’t have been happier.
Along the road to the coast, there were a lot of small hotels and posadas that are not listed on the internet. I felt confident that if we couldn’t get a room at La Puesta del Sol, we could have found a room somewhere else along the way.
For our first night on the coast, we stayed in Zipolite. When we arrived, we parked in town and walked up and down the beach price-checking a handful of different hotels. We found prices ranging from $200MXN to $1200MXN and finally settled on Hotel El Paraiso which was $500MXN per night which included a private bathroom, hot water, wifi, parking, and a balcony that overlooked the ocean. It was definitely the best option for us.
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The view from our balcony.
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The beach was clean and not overcrowded while we were there. But be warned, or informed, that Zipolite is a nude beach.
The next morning we drove down the coast to the town of Mazunte. We had booked a room at Posada Ziga Playa for two nights. It was definitely the nicest place we stayed on the trip ($1000MXN per night) and our room included a private terrace with a hammock. But in hindsight, I think I would have rather stayed somewhere that was not as upscale but had beach chairs and umbrellas down on the beach (as Posada Ziga Playa had neither of these). Also, the hotel is situated up on a small hill so you have to walk up and down stairs to get to the beach.
My advice while visiting this part of the Pacific Ocean in Mexico is to be careful when swimming in the water. When we first checked into our hotel in Zipolite, we were given a full briefing of the undercurrent and the water conditions that day. And I’m thankful that they took the time to warn us. After our first slightly treacherous day in the ocean, my husband walked up and down the beach to find a less rough spot to swim in. We lined ourselves up with a few large rocks about two hundred meters out into the water. These rocks were able to break up most of the waves coming in and therefore the current and waves were not as forceful.
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The view from a hiking trail starting on the western edge of Mazunte.
While in Mazunte, we went to the turtle sanctuary which was very interesting though there didn’t seem to be an option for a guided tour. And while we enjoyed looking at a lot of different turtles, we did not learn very much. But for $32MXN per person, it was a nice little outing. We also went out for dinner and drinks in town a few times including a great little Italian place called Alessandro’s where I was able to get a $9USD steak that was delicious. We also came across a handful of small bars and restaurants that had live music and offered two for one drink specials.
After a few lovely days at the beach, we made the long drive back to Oaxaca City starting out early in the morning. Traffic was light which was a blessing on the winding roads. I was concerned that we would have to pay a lot of tolls to and from the coast but we really only drove on one toll road near Mitla. My suggestion would be that if you are going to rent a car know that everything will take longer than you expect. Also, I would not recommend driving at night due to the twisting roads and all of the speed bumps. Finally, the gas stations we went to did not take credit card but there was always a gas station attendant to pump the gasoline for you.
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Roadtrip from Oaxaca City to the Coast

General Notes on Vietnam

-Unless a price is specifically written out (and sometimes even then) know that almost everything is negotiable.

-Before ordering any food, ask the price and make sure that you understand what you are getting for that price. We had many vendors who would show us the bill corresponding with the cost when we would ask “how much?” (bao nhiêu in Vietnamese, pronounced bow n-you)

-We were occasionally quoted a price that was inflated tremendously. When we countered with a lower price they would usually take it immediately. I read that the Vietnamese expect and appreciate a good negotiation. They do not consider it rude. We found this to be true. In some countries, the negotiation seems like a way to try in a rip you off, but here it is seems more like it’s what they think they can get away with. When you press them, they’re fine with a lower price. This is not to say that you won’t run into people whose plan is to try and separate you from your money. Be cautious and always ask questions.

-Most of our taxi drivers spoke very little English, so we were thankful for the small amount of Vietnamese that we had learned. The taxi drivers also do not seem well versed in explaining what they are doing or where they are taking you.

-Only ride in taxis with meters and tell them to turn it on. We used the taxi company Vinasun exclusively as they have a great reputation and an app for your smart phone.

-When researching this trip I came around many accounts of travelers renting motorbikes (motorcycles, Vespas, etc.) even though it is technically illegal to do so. What I didn’t grasp until we were in the country was that motorbikes were the only real option for independent travel outside a city. While I am glad that we did not rent motorbikes as we had no prior experience riding them (and we met far too many travelers with motorbike injuries and accident stories to tell), I did not like that this limited in our transportation options. In Hoi An and Tam Coc, we were able to rent bicycles cheaply, but could not cover the distances that a motorbike could. On Cat Ba, the hills were too much for a mere pedal bike and the only other option for getting around the island was by tour bus. Before I visit Southeast Asia again, I would take the time to become more familiar with motorbikes and how to ride them safely.

– Taking domestic flights within Vietnam was definitely worth the money to save some time. We flew VietJet Air three times with the average price for a one-way flight at $53USD. Beware that the site is buggy and it took me multiple tries to book tickets on each attempt. The trains take too long when trying to cover long distances. The sleeper bus is doable if you’re short in stature and small in build, but if you taller than 5’8” you’ll have a hard time fitting in the reclined seat.

 

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Here I am in a sleeper bus seat. I am 5’3″ tall so I fit but my husband and our friend (who are both much taller than I am) did not fit comfortably in their seats.

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– Consider using a trip to Vietnam as a cheap shopping opportunity. Need new t-shirts and flip-flops…why not get them there? If you’re looking for custom dresses, suits, etc., it might be worth more of a look than we gave it. Even for everyday things (sandals, umbrellas, etc.), it’s usually way cheaper to get them in Vietnam than at home. Also, the pharmacies in Vietnam offer most pharmaceutical drugs over the counter. When we needed Cipro and cough medicine we bought it there and the prices were cheap.

– It was easier to find triple rooms in Vietnam than it has been in other countries. This was great since we could usually split a hotel room three ways and it was only a bit more expensive than all three of us staying in a dorm together (along with others).

– As a traveler you cannot drink the tap water in Vietnam. Thankfully, you can find bottled water everywhere. Just shop around in each town or city you visit to find the going rate. The best deal we came across was 6,000VND for 1.5L of water.

-Vietnam is an amazing country to travel in when you are on a budget. The cost for my husband and I for this three week trip was just under $2,000USD which includes all of our flights, food, transportation, etc. We definitely could have spent even less than we did in Vietnam, but we wanted a few creature comforts once in a while; privacy, a clean bathroom, imported wine, and hassle free transportation in the form of taxis and faster ferries.

– As Americans traveling to Vietnam, you need to have a visa to enter the country and it is advised that you obtain the visa before you get to Vietnam. When we went looking for visa information, we were directed to a website (http://vietnamembassy-usa.org/consular) and email address (dcconsular@gmail.com). Having the visa in our passports when we arrived saved a lot of time, energy, and confusion.

General Notes on Vietnam

Veliko Tarnovo, Bulgaria

Due to our somewhat tight schedule, we had planned on only staying in Veliko Tarnovo one night. We were going to visit the fortress and wander around town. But when we got to our room at the Hotel Comfort and looked at the view from our balcony of the valley below, the fortress, and town, we thought, “what if we stay two nights?” And that’s what we did.

We walked over to the Tsaravets Fortress in the afternoon and paid 6BGN per person for a ticket. The surrounding ruins are more expansive than we originally thought. We went into the church at the center and then wandered the ruins for another hour or so. We also inquired on how to reach the other fortress, Trapezitsa, across the river. We were told that it was not open to the public right now, so we just admired it from afar.

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We spent two wonderful days wandering the town. We had dinner at the somewhat famous restaurant called Shtastlivetsa. While I am usually skeptical of TripAdvisor recommendations, this one lived up to all of its reviews and the local hype. The menu was ridiculously extensive and our food was very delicious. Although it would be considered expensive compared to other options, it was totally worth it. We ordered one beer, one glass of wine, pork medallions with cheese and mushroom sauce, and risotto and the total bill was only 30BGN.

After dinner, we wandered farther down the main road away from the fortress and turned down a small road toward a few bars. We picked one at random (the location coordinates are 43.083808,25.635271). There was a European league volleyball game on TV that everyone seemed really focused on so we joined in watching. We each grabbed two drinks (12BGN total) and while we tried to blend in, we definitely got called out as Amerikanskies when I asked why they didn’t serve Black Ram whisky. It was good, solid bar with food available.

While in Veliko Tarnovo, we spent an afternoon wandering farther into the actual town, away from the fortress. I searched Google for ‘bakery’ and found a little dessert shop called Luchia. It’s a 20 minute walk from the tourist area of town but well worth it. We grabbed four small sweets and paid 2.50BGN. They also have cakes and coffee if you want to eat there. We took our sweets and walked towards the river and Park Sveta Gora. This park is a lovely area to wander through, but beware that to get to the heart of the park you have to climb about 346 stairs (I counted). At the top there are benches, picnic tables, and walking trails heading in all directions. There are also many types of playgrounds for children including rockwalls, a zipline, and jungle gyms galore.

Veliko Tarnovo, Bulgaria

Queenstown, New Zealand

When we were closing in on Queenstown, we decided to go straight into town for dinner and drinks before heading to our apartment in Arrowtown. We drove around and finally found a parking spot up the hill about a 10 minute walk. Street parking was free, so there were no complaints.
 
We went to Fergburger that night because we had been told of their delicious burgers. We waited in a long line which actually moved rather quickly. There is limited seating in the restaurant, but we were lucky and snagged a table. Once the burgers arrived (two regular Fergburgers, two with cheese), we ate up quickly. Overall, my assessment is that for the money, it’s a good deal. It’s hard to find any meal under $20 NZD, let alone one that is filling. Was it a great burger matching the fame it has? Not for me it wasn’t. For Americans, I would compare it to In ‘N Out Burger or Five Guys. The results don’t match the hype but it’s tasty nonetheless. The place only seats about 40 people so if you don’t get a seat, you’ll have to take your meal to go.
 
We also grabbed drinks at Pub on Wharf and stayed to listen to the band playing that night. Drinks were more affordable than I expected, but still not cheap. A large, local beer cost $10 NZD; a mixed drink (with well or rail spirits) was $8.50 NZD. After enjoying some drinks and some live music, we headed to the grocery store for supplies and then it was off to our apartment.
 
The next day we returned to Queenstown and wandered the town and along the lake. The lake is exceptionally scenic and the pathway around it really gives you a chance to take in its beauty and enjoy nature without putting in a lot of effort.
Lake Wakatipu
Later that day, we grabbed drinks and snacks at 1876 Bar & Restaurant. During happy hours, they offer $5 NZD beers and $4 NZD glasses of wine. For dinner, we headed to The Cow. It’s a dark, cozy restaurants that smells of garlic and happiness. It was a perfect choice for us on a day that was turning rainy and cold. We shared garlic bread (which totally lived up to its hype), a small salad, one pasta, and one pizza. This easily fed four people and without drinks, our bill came to around $70 NZD.
 
We also visited a handful of the wineries in the area. If you have a car, there are a few along Route 6A between Queenstown and Arrowtown that are worth a visit. If not, there are a few tasting rooms in Queenstown and Arrowtown.
Queenstown, New Zealand

Makarska, Croatia

I have to admit that I was not impressed with Makarska when I first arrived. For me it reminiscent of the overbuilt beach towns of Florida but with less Americans and more Bosnians. There are apartment buildings everywhere renting rooms, finding good food was difficult at best and the beaches were overrun (and weren’t that spacious to begin with). But, once we wandered into the Old Town, I warmed a bit. Overall, I would say that there are better beach towns on the mainland of Croatian that are less crowded (keep in mind we were there in earl September. I can only imagine what it is like in the height of summer.)
 
For those who like the club scene, there was a really cool club at the south end of the bay that is carved out of a cave. There are also a number of bars that serve some decent drinks. Some had live music that was pretty good, but most were fairly standard bars.
Makarska, Croatia

Madrid, Spain

Madrid is the place for eating, drinking, and wandering. There are great tapas bars, wine bars, and restaurants all over the city. My favorite was El Tempranillo in La Latina, C/ Cava Baja, 38, west of the La Latina metro stop. Their wine selection was amazing and their tapas were delicious (especially the roasted veggies with melted goat cheese). On this same street, there are a handful of other great tapas bars. Check out this other blog for lists of great tapas bars in La Latina and around Madrid: http://tapastalk.wordpress.com/tapas-bars/

There’s a great restaurant called Bazaar, C/ San Marcos, 35, just south of the Chuenca metro stop (http://www.restaurantbazaar.com/). The food has an international flavor to it; some Spanish, some Asian flavors but all around good. The prices aren’t too bad either, about 6-10€ per plate, and they have great wines (including house wines).

Last recommendation. San Antón (http://www.mercadosananton.com/) and San Miguel (http://www.mercadodesanmiguel.es/) markets are great places to eat some delicious food, but it’s an even better deal to take some to go. If you are staying in an apartment or going on a picnic in Retiro Park (which I highly recommend), pop into either market. Buy a little of this and a little of that and you will be amazed at the quality of food you get for just a few euros. American readers, please remember that one pound equals 453 grams, so 100 grams of cheese is enough for a good snack for a few people or to last a few days. Add a bottle or two of wine from a grocery store (for as low as 1€) and you’re good to go.
To get in and out of the city, there is an express bus from the airport to Cibeles (Banco de Espana metro stop) and Atocha (Atocha metro stop) for 2€ each way. It’s easy and quick, the driver can provide change, and, best of all, you don’t have to transfer in any of the many metro stations. Check out this site for more Information:  http://www.esmadrid.com/en/barajas-airport-express

Also, one other tip about Madrid’s metro system: when you look at the system map, the city seems quite spread out and possibly unmanageable. In actuality, the metro stations are closer to each other than one would think (some as little as 3-5 minutes on foot). I recommend that in the first day or two you are in Madrid, don’t buy the 10 ticket metro pass. Figure out where you think you want to go in the city, how much walking you are willing to do, and go from there.

Madrid, Spain

First Blog, Ever

Greetings from Austria. This is where my blogging life begins. I have been travelling for years now, just here and there when I have vacation time and and an idea of where to go, so I thought I would share my insights with the interwebs. I hope I can be helpful to others who want to see the world (and maybe some parts of the world lots of others have not seen), learn about other cultures, and do so on a budget. In future blogs, I will revisit places I have been in the past and write about recent trips. But for now, let’s start in the present.
 

I am currently in Hall in Tirol, Austria; A cute, little down just down the train line from Innsbruck. We, my husband Kyle and I, had planned on staying a few nights in Innsbruck and maybe take a day trip to Hall but we threw caution to the wind this afternoon and took a chance. It paid off. While the hotel we are staying in is a bit over our regular budget (Gasthof Badl for €74), its a nice place just outside of town and breakfast is included. We got here in the afternoon with no reservations and made a beeline for the information center. There we found a nice man who gave us a few options of hotels and called to see if rooms where available. We made it to our hotel, then headed back to town to wonder the narrow streets of Hall. We found a small restaurant called Geisterburg that had great pizza and a salad bar and drinks. Dinner, dessert, and multiple drinks for €30 doesn’t seem too bad for Austria, so far. We then stopped in Bar Centrale near the main square for another round of drinks. Tomorrow, we plan on biking around the area for a few hours and then heading to the next stop. 

A note about the beginning of this trip: We started this trip a few days ago flying out of the States heading to Zurich but connecting in Madrid. For the first time ever, we missed a connecting flight and spent a few hours in Madrid. Now, I have been there before (and will be there again in a few weeks) but my husband had never been. So we spend our few precious hours walking around the Royal Palace grounds, Plaza Mayor, Puerta del Sol, and having lunch at a wonderfully located cafe near the “suicide bridge.” While there are many other places, I would love to take him, I wanted him to see the highlights of the city and what is is known for (and we did not have time for a tapas crawl). There will be time to return there, I’m sure. After we made it to Zurich (a city which is lovely, yet too expensive for this trip), we took a train to the town of Bregenz. Now, we had read some not so nice things about Bregenz but we found it to be a wonderful city and much more affordable than Lindau, Germany across the lake. We stayed at the Ibis hotel which, while it is a chain hotel, it was one of the most affordable and well located hotels we found. If you just need a bed and a shower and don’t plan on spending a lot of time in the room, it’s a great deal (at about €107). We wondered around Bregenz and enjoyed it. There are a lot of outdoor activities to do and a lot of bike paths. While there, we took the train over to Lindau which is a picturesque German town. With hindsight, we probably could have walked or biked the bikepath from Bregenz to Lindau (the train took about 10 minutes and the bike path seemed to go all the way from one town to the other).

Random things I have learn about Austria/Austrians so far: While our guidebooks told us to hand our tip to the waiter and not to leave it on the table, the waiters don’t seem to wait for the tip and then are not always easy to find in the restaurant. So, we have been leaving the 10% tip on the table. Also, no one seems to bless you when you sneeze.



First Blog, Ever