Guadalajara, Mexico

Guadalajara is not a pretty city in the conventional way but it has a lot to offer visitors. The city is large and sprawling. And in the four days that I was there with two friends, I did not get to see nearly as much of it as I would have hoped but that means I have lots of exploring to do when I return.

 

We stayed at an Airbnb near Parque Alcalde. The apartment was very nice and had a balcony which we took full advantage first thing in the mornings and then again in the afternoons when we needed a rest from wandering the city streets. I cannot recommend this Airbnb host enough. He was so accommodating, helpful, and gave us some great information on the city. And he has multiple properties in Guadalajara to choose from.
We had originally planned to stay near Avenida Chapultepec Norte and thus found bars and restaurants to check out in that neighborhood. We dined at El Sacromonte and I would highly recommend it. I had steak in a delicious sauce for around $250MXN.  We also wondered down the way and split a bottle of wine at Romea. It was very chic and a bit on the expensive side (our bottle of wine cost $730MXN) but a nice treat to sit outside on a nice evening and enjoy some delicious wine. Later during our long weekend, we went to Pigs Pearls in the same neighborhood. We needed a break from traditional Mexican food and grabbed burgers. Lunch (a burger and a glass of wine) was perfect change of pace and only cost $85MXN.
We definitely ate a lot of food while we were in Guadalajara and it seems as though the street food was easier to find at night than during the day. Much like anywhere else, I would recommend if you’re eating street food find vendors that are busy with locals, saddle up, and eat everything. We did eat in the mercado in the city center one day for lunch and it was delicious. Also, we are here during Lent in the Catholic faith and there were a lot more fish options than I would have thought we’d find. Hopefully this is not just during the Lenten season but is all year round.
Usually when I sit down at any sort of food vendor in which prices are not listed, I ask what the prices are. But I found in Guadalajara that when I didn’t ask first, all of the prices were perfectly acceptable and I never had any issues with people over charging me. This might be because I speak enough Spanish to order food and ask questions. Everyone was very friendly and helpful. And while a lot of people here do speak English, I think that it was easier for everyone when I used my small amounts of Spanish.
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This torta ahogada (the drowned torta) included pork, cabbage, onions, and a tart tomato sauce.
We also ate at a little place called Casa Mitote which serves Oaxacan dishes. It was so delicious and were so glad that we caught them on a night when they were actually opened.
We attended a performance by the Jalisco Philharmonic while we were in town. The music was just lovely and tickets were very affordable. We had wonderful seats in the center of the theater for $220MXN each.
We also visited Tlaquepaque on a Saturday which was a nice break from the city. It was also a great place to shop for locally-made crafts. Some of the items that we found here were very similar to other items we found in Oaxaca but at cheaper prices.
Few locals had amazing things to say about taxi drivers so we opted to use Uber when we needed to get around the city and could not walk the distance. We took one from our Airbnb to the city center and it cost about for $2USD one way. There are currently two train lines that serve parts of Guadalajara but since we were not here very long and we tend to walk a lot of places, we did not take advantage of the public transportation.
I also visited the Panteon de Mexquitan cemetery one afternoon. The architecture and stone work of the mausoleums was beautiful though some where in sad states of repair. I really enjoyed wandering the quiet paths and reflecting on this cities history and its people.

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Guadalajara, Mexico

Oaxaca City, Mexico

A few weeks ago, my husband and I flew down to Oaxaca, Mexico for vacation. We had read that the food was amazing, the people were friendly, and the town was beautiful. All of these things were exactly true.

We spent four days and four nights in the city of Oaxaca before heading to the coast for a few days and then returning for a few more days in the city.

From the airport, we took the colectivo (small van or bus) instead of a taxi. You need buy a ticket inside the airport after you leave baggage claim. You also wait in the same line if you want to get a taxi. The cost is $80MXN per person. We learned the hard way that you cannot buy tickets from the driver or other employees outside of the airport.

There are so many delicious options for food in Oaxaca, I didn’t know where to start. There are street food vendors, markets, and restaurants galore, all to fit any budget. Below, I have listed all of my favorite places to eat and drink. Also, I found a very helpful website explaining a handful of Oaxacan dishes everyone should try while visiting.
Mercado 20 de Noviembre
This mercado was more organized than those I have seen in other towns and cities in Mexico. It’s much more permanent and established than I was expecting. My advice is pick a food vendor that is busy with locals and grab a seat and a menu. We ate at one place and had a sopa amarillo con res (soup with beef) and a tamal (singular of tamales). Both were delicious and filing. For a total cost of $80MXN, it was a tasty light lunch.
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Lunch at Mercado de 20 Noviembre
Mercado Organico
This place is not so much a traditional mercado as a collection of small food vendors in which vegetarian and organic options are the norm versus the regular mercados in which meat is the main option in most dishes. The options here are more interesting than the other mercados and a little more expensive, but not out of control. On the day we went, we had an empanada (closer in size of a quesadilla in the U.S. than a traditional Argentinian empanada) and two memelas. Neither of the items were huge but they were tasty and a great first stop for our food crawl. Our bill came to $135MXN.
Drinks on the terrace at Gozobi
The view is lovely and drinks were reasonably priced at about $70-90MXN for a cocktail and $30-50MXN for a beer. For the location, we deemed this to be a pretty good and average priced.
Biznaga
The food was good but I thought it was expensive for Oaxaca. While the dishes we ordered were delicious (steak in a mole sauce with goat cheese and chicken in a poblano pepper sauce), I think there are other places to go if you’re willing to spend the money. Both entrees and two drinks cost about $500MXN.
Mezquite
This was definitely my favorite “nicer” restaurant in Oaxaca. They have a small terrace which has great views and the food is amazing. We went there once and had a round of drinks and the flor de calabaza empanada (squash blossom and cheese empanada) and spent about $200MXN. We returned a few nights later and ordered five starters and a round of drinks. Some of the starter dishes were larger than we expected. It was definitely too much food, but still delicious. Even with way too much food and a good cocktail or two, the bill came to around $500MXN after tip.
La Santisima Flor de Lupulo
Santisima is a nanobrewery but also serves cocktails and wine. We visited a handful of times to eat and drink because they also offer local cheeses, sausages that are made in house, and gazpacho that I still think about.
El Olivo Gastrobar
They have a nice open upstairs area and serve Spanish tapas. I went there twice for drinks and a snack. The patatas bravas were not amazing but the drinks were tasty and a nice change up from mezcal. A glass of Mexican wine costs about $60MXN.
Praha
It’s a great little bar and restaurant where drinks are slightly cheaper than the other terrace bars that we went to. The food menu is very much targeted towards tourists and is not local food. If you are in need of a hamburger or salad this might be the place to go though. The service was good and it seemed that they had live music most nights.
Boulenc
I had an amazing croissant sandwich (kale, spinach, and goat cheese) here one morning and am sad I couldn’t eat it again (and again and again). This sandwich was one of my favorite things I ate while in Oaxaca and was only $47MXN. The bakery is really small and only has about seven seats so if you can’t stay, take things to go (“para llevar” in Spanish).
Alhondiga Reforma
We stumbled across this little food court which is set up kind of like Latinicity in Chicago or Mercado San Anton in Madrid. When we went, we shared a delicious salad and fish tacos from one food stall, an Argentinian empanada, and a small Spanish tapa from another, and drinks from another. All were good but the salad (spinach, cranberries, goat cheese, and nuts) and the shrimp tacos were the best.
Tortas La Hormiga
I frequented the Tortas La Hormiga food truck in Jardin Conzati so many times that the guys knew me by name (I went there four times in three days). These were by far the best tortas I had while in Oaxaca. While there aren’t many vegetarian options, there is a large assortment of meat options. I say try them all and keep going back. At $25-45MXN per torta, it’s an amazing deal for an amazing sandwich. They have a handful of locations so find the one closest to you and eat there. You won’t be disappointed.
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These tortas were amazing. Even though I had four while I was there, I wish I would have had more.
Parque El Llano
We found great street food options in Parque El Llano on the northern side of town. Most of vendors seem to only be there during the day and close around 6 p.m. if not earlier. A few stuck around into the evening. Tortas, tacos, tlayudas, and memelas are the staples here, and they are delicious. This was the area in which we found the most street food on the north side of the city. I highly recommend going to this park especially Friday during the day when they have lots of food vendors and other vendors selling a little bit of everything. It’s also a very family-friendly and safe park, as lots of the parks in Oaxaca are. They even rent Power Wheels out to children to drive around the park. There was also a large bounce house that kids could pay to use.
Beyond eating, there’s lots to do in Oaxaca. We visited the Prehispanic Art Museum which was interesting but small. We also visited the Centro Fotográfico Manuel Álvarez Bravo which is free to the public.
We also wandered the quite streets from church to cathedral to basilica. There are an extraordinary number of churches in Oaxaca and many are worth a peak inside.
We also came across a handful of cultural events (parades, live concerts, etc.) that were not listed anywhere I could easily find as a tourist. This was very frustrating to me and is my only complaint about the city of Oaxaca. The longer I was in town, the more I began to notice bills posted around town noting upcoming events. The tourism booths were not much help, so I would recommend keeping an eye out for bills and posters while wandering the streets or hope to stumble upon a parade or concert like we did.
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On Friday and Saturday nights, there seem to be a lot of weddings at the Templo de Santo Domingo. I highly recommend hanging around this church in the late afternoon or early evening for some great people watching. This area comes alive in the evenings. Grab a drink with a view of the church and enjoy watching the Oaxacan wedding traditions unfold before you.

Oaxaca City, Mexico

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

Rotorua, New Zealand

In November 2014, I traveled around New Zealand and Australia with my husband and two terrific friends. We started our journey by flying into Auckland and making a beeline for Rotorua. This area has some amazing geothermal sites to visit. We visited both Waimangu Volcanic Valley and Wai-O-Tapu. For the money, I really enjoyed the latter more because visitors have closer access to the geothermal activity in Wai-O-Tapu. The admission costs $36 NZD and $32.50 NZD, respectively. Both sites can be accessed by car or by day tour. We had a limited amount of time for this trip, so I cannot comment on public transportation options. If you are in the area but do not want to spend the money to enter these sites, visit the mud pits that are just outside of the gates of Wai-O-Tapu.
 
There aren’t a lot of restaurant options in the area of Wai-O-Tapu but we popped into the Wai-O-Tapu Tavern. It’s just a little snack shop with a pool table but it was good, basic food (sandwiches, burgers, and the best wedges we had on the trip) at around $13 NDZ per meal.
 
The town of Rotorua itself was lacking in character and people when we were there. I would guess this is because Rotorua is more of a day trip by tour bus than a town to spend time in. This might also be the case because the sulfurous odor from the geothermal activity can be smelled everywhere.
Outside of town is a great thermal bath called Waikite Valley Thermal Pools. While this type of attraction is not usually a big draw for me, this location had seven pools heated to different temperatures which made the experience much more appealing. For an entrance fee of $15 NZD, I found it to be a good deal especially after walking around in the cold and rainy weather all day.
Rotorua, New Zealand

Jerusalem, Israel

My sister-in-law Kim and I stay in Jerusalem for three nights. We rented an apartment through Airbnb.com just off Jaffa Street (also spelled Yafo Street) about a 15 minute walk northwest of the Old City. We saw the sites of the old city which are mainly free. We also took a tour of the tunnels under the old city that cost about NIS22. It was a wonderful way to learn more about the history of the city.

We also visited the West Bank with Abraham Tours. The tour took all day visiting the River Jordan, Jericho, Ramallah, Bethlehem, and the Taybeh Brewery. And at US$105 per person, it wasn’t a bad deal though we expected our guide to share more information than he did.

The West Bank Barrier covered in local art.

Many people who visit Jerusalem might be on a pilgrimage of one type or another. The pilgrimage experience can be sullied if you expect to have a personal, spiritual experience while visiting religious sites. There seem to be crowds everywhere and you should expect long wait times to see the most “holy” shrines like at the Sepulcher Tomb and the Temple Mount. I highly recommend visiting any sites inside the Old City in the early mornings for some peaceful time. Also, visit the West Bank. It’s well worth the journey.

View of the Old City from the Mount of Olives.

While in Jerusalem, we took the tram up to the Mahane Yehuda Market. It’s a great place to grab some fresh snacks or a cheap meal. There are a few little restaurants in the market. The one we loved is called Topolino. It’s an Italian place where the pasta is made on site and all dishes are made to order. At about NIS25 per dish, it’s a great deal. To get to the restaurants, enter the Market from Agripas Street. Most of the restaurants are in between the two main aisles.

Wifi is free and available on most major roads in Jerusalem. It is wonderful being able to check email and update social media from so many public places. But because the public wifi is available, the apartment we stayed in and some of the cafes we visited did not offer their own wifi. If the public wifi signal is not strong where you’re staying or eating, you might be out of luck.

We rode the buses and trams around the city and tried to avoid taking taxis, as they get expensive quickly. Keep in mind, all taxis have meters, so don’t ask how much a trip will cost. Taxi drivers will quote you a flat rate which will always be higher than what the meter would run you. 
Jerusalem, Israel

Amman, Jordan

We spent four nights in Amman in an apartment rental via Airbnb. The manager of our apartment, Sama’n, also manages many other apartments in the city which are listed on Airbnb and on Gweet which is the Middle East’s answer to Airbnb and VRBO.com. Sama’n was a wonderful host and a very helpful man to know while in Amman. It’s a sprawling city that seems to have no end.
 

While I enjoyed the city and all of its diverse options of things to do, see, and eat, it was a test in patience every time we left the apartment. When we arrived in Amman, the first thing Katie and I did was return the rental car as I had heard nerve-racking stories of driving in this capital city. The tales proved to be true as we sat in bumper-to-bumper traffic on our ride into the city. No car meant that we either had to take the public buses (which we were told were safe, but that as ladies, we would be expected to wear headscarves if we wanted to ride without incident) or we could rely on taxis. We took the taxi option which seemed like the lesser of two frustrations (waiting for buses or trying to communicate with taxis drivers). Every time we got into a taxi, we had issues communicating where we wanted to go and how to get there. Although most buildings in Amman had addresses, they’re not used and the taxi drivers we dealt with didn’t seem to know where major sights or streets were. 

Every set of directions starts with which traffic circle is nearest your destination (there are seven) and you have to direct the driver onward from the circle. Giving directions from the circle was difficult as our Arabic was limited and the taxi drivers had equally limited English. Even when we would show them a map of the city with our destination clearly marked, more times than not, they would tell us that this wasn’t a map of Amman and that they couldn’t get us to our destination. Once we were out and about, getting home became the next issue. Looking back, I wonder if the buses would have been less of a hassle even with the wardrobe change before we left the apartment, the waiting around, and the adventure of finding out how to pay the fare. There is a third option for getting around town and out of town—hiring a driver for the day or for a set amount of time. We chose this option when we visited Jerash, but compared to the taxi fare (about JD1-2 per ride across town), hiring a driver was very expensive (about JD30 for a four-hour time period). Keep in mind that most of these drivers speak more English than your average taxi driver and once you find one you like (and one who knows where you live), it’s understandable why you would keep calling them time and again. We found our driver through another driver we met outside a tourist sight, but you can also try your luck at hailing a yellow cab on the street. 

Once we made it to our destination and shook off the frustration of the taxi ride, we really enjoyed ourselves. We visited the Citadel (JD2) and the Roman Amphitheater (JD1). We ate amazing food that, in more Western-style restaurants, cost about JD10-15 per person without alcohol. We made the obligatory and delicious visit to Hashem and our lunch only cost only JD2 per person. If you read anything about Amman, you will read about Hashem. It’s a small falafel place that is super cheap, super fast, and super tasty. They bring each table a plate of falafel, a plate of tomatoes, onions, and mint, pita bread, and tea immediately after being seated. Hummus, ful, and falafel are available by order. There’s no printed menu, but there may be other foods available as well. Ask any local where it is and they’ll tell you. Hell, this is probably the only place taxi drivers will know when you mention it.

Citadel in Amman.
Everywhere we went in Amman proved to be fun and interesting, but none of our outings would have been possible without a smartphone helping us every step of the way. I hope with time Amman will become more tourist friendly.
Amman, Jordan

Girona, Spain

Girona is a picturesque town that has a lot to offer if you are ambitious or is a great town to wander aimlessly if you are less ambitious. There is more than enough to do to keep you occupied for a handful of days or it could be wonderful base for side trips in the region.
We spent one morning walking the ancient walls of the city. Starting behind the cathedral and walking south, it was a wonderful way to see the breathtaking view of the town and the surrounding landscape. It took just under an hour and it was free.
 

We wandered the streets of the old town and the new. There is more history (the cathedral, St. Felix’s church, etc.) in the old town but there is more shopping (H&M, Zara, etc.) on the newer side of town.

Foodwise, Zanparzan was a great find. The night we went in, it was standing room only for awhile. Luckily, we were able to snag a table quickly, camped out, and ate to our heart’s content. The pinxtos where delicious and were about €1.40 each. We also stumbled upon a Mexican restaurant that was actually worth going to (I find that Mexican food outside of the States and Mexico usually isn’t very good). It was not cheap (about €15 for an entrée and margarita) but the food at Maguey, Cort Reial 1, was a nice change from tapas and pinxtos.

While in Girona, we stayed in any apartment we found on www.airbnb.com. The man who owned the apartment, Oriol, also has a bike tour company (click here for the website). While we did not have the opportunity to take a tour with Oriol, he was such a wonderful host that I can only imagine the tours to be well planned, entertaining, and a great way to spend a day.

View from our apartment in Girona.

For side trips from Girona, I recommend going to the tourist office and asking for bus schedules. We looked online but couldn’t always find good, basic information. Also, keep in mind there are two bus stations in Girona. One is just outside of the old town but the other is further south in front of the train station.

We also took a daytrip to the small town of Bezalu. It was picturesque and lovely. There is a lot of history to see there. Unfortunately, because it is such a small town most of these “attractions” are closed to the public unless you take a 30 minute walking tour of town, which only takes place a few times a day and is only offered in Spanish. But if you want to get into the “sites,” go to the tourism information center to find out the starting times for tours and do so as soon as you arrive in town.The start times for the walking tour are also posted outside most of the main sites.

Bezalu, Spain
Girona, Spain