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

Cat Ba Island, Vietnam

During our stay on Cat Ba, we stayed in two separate hotels. First, we stayed at the Hai Long Hotel. We had a spacious room with a view of the water and breakfast was included. At 600,000VND (for a triple room) per night, it was one of the more expensive places we stayed yet still under budget. This hotel was really nice by Vietnamese standards but it still had some oddities. For instance, our bathroom had a bathtub but no shower curtain, making it essentially still a wet bathroom. Also, the elevators smelled like gasoline and the hot water was heated with coal brought in by the employees through the lobby. Overall, it has a great location in town and was a better option than other hotels we looked at (and better than the other hotel we stayed in).

We spent one night at Le Pont. While the amenities at Le Pont are wonderful (great views, 20% off already affordable food and drinks, and a less congested location but still walking distance to town) the rooms were another story. Kyle and I splurged for the bungalow, which was nice since it had its own bathroom, but the bed was really hard (much like most beds we slept in while in Vietnam). Also we weren’t given any sheets and the pillows had mold growing on them. Because the bungalow is located near reception and a lounge area, light poured into our room throughout the night. For $22USD, we expected more given that our usual room cost about $27USD a night for all three of us.

Rheanna had a similarly bad experience with her private room ($10USD). It was separated from the dormitory by only a slatted wall, which did not block sound at all. She was pretty sure that her bedding had not been changed between her and the previous guest. Also her room was located right behind the bar at Le Pont, which sometimes has music blaring into the wee hours. Le Pont has great reviews online, so if you still want to stay there I would give this advice: in the low season, arrive before booking a room and only stay on the left side of the reception area. There is a ramp up to the bar area on the right and that is where most of the dorm rooms and private rooms are located. The left side was significantly quieter when we were there then the right side. The views from Le Pont are beautiful, so if you are going to stay there, spend some time enjoying it. We had two day tours planned and therefore really didn’t get to enjoy the view.

While on Cat Ba, we took two day tours around Ha Long and Lan Ha Bays. We had saved some money by staying on land at night and going on different tours during the day. Plus, the weather was not amazing while we were there, so the overnight on a boat would not have been clear or warm. We took our first day tour with Asia Outdoors because we’d heard they were the best and worth the extra money. On the tour of Lan Ha Bay, we boated for about an hour, kayaked for 1.5 hours, then had a delicious lunch. After lunch, we boated around for another hour and then kayaked for one hour. Our guide for the day was named Fouk and while he was nice and he answered our direct questions, he was not very forthcoming with the history and make up of the nature surrounding us and provided minimal instruction on how to kayak . He also didn’t have a commanding presence over our group. The tour was fun and I felt safe on the boat, but I expected more out of the tour. At a cost of 495,000VND per person for a double kayak and 600,000VND for a single person (which did not necessarily mean you would get a single kayak if you wanted it), it wasn’t the stellar experience I hoped for. Maybe I have been spoiled by great guided tours in the past (see blog entries for Canada and  Maine).

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The scenery of Lan Ha Bay was stunning.
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One of the many floating villages we passed while out on our boat tours.

The next day, we took another day tour (one that was offered at Le Pont Hotel) which included boating, kayaking, a visit to Monkey Island, and lunch on the boat. For $16USD per person this tour did not include an English speaking guide but the plan for the day was just as unexplained as the day before with Asia Outdoors. We were first dropped off on Monkey Island for one hour with no mention of the fact that the monkeys are somewhat aggressive and will try and take your objects out of your hand. Thankfully, we knew this ahead of time and were prepared to guard our belongings closely. We then boarded the boat again and later kayaked for the first time with the guide for about an hour. The afternoon kayaking session was 40 minutes long and our guide did not join us in the water. Lunch was provided and was just as tasty as the lunch we had with Asia Outdoors. All in all, it was roughly the same tour for a lower price. We were just happy to be out on the water for day.

It did not seem like we could haggle the tour price at Asia Outdoors though we definitely had to discuss the price that we saw on their website versus the price they were quoting us. As for the other tour, we definitely got a discount from Le Pont but found out that others on the tour were able to get it a bit cheaper ($15USD per person instead of $16USD per person). I’m not sure what you can get away with in high season, but we definitely tried to haggle down prices everywhere we went.

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Seeing monkeys up close was fun but also nerve-racking as they had no fear of humans and were very interested in taking the things that belong to us.
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Here we are returning from an hour of kayaking. Back to the junk boat for us to eat some tasty lunch.

The Vietnamese food in Cat Ba wasn’t amazing but if you do a little searching (and get off the main street near the water), the options get better and cheaper. We did eat and drink at a restaurant/bar called the Flightless Bird Bar. The drink prices were good (Vietnamese liquor and soda for 28,00VND) and the pizza was delicious. Just past the Flightless Bird Bar there is a little Vietnamese place with phở, bún, and rice dishes that were really tasty and the prices were great, about 35,000-40,000VND per bowl.

Cat Ba Island, Vietnam

Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam

In March of this year, my husband, Kyle, and I and our friend Rheanna snagged cheap tickets to Vietnam on China Eastern Airlines. We had never been to Southeast Asia, but were excited to jump in starting with Ho Chi Minh City (also known as Saigon). Since we were arriving in the middle of the night, we booked a hotel ahead of time. The Ailen Garden Hotel, located in District 1, was a great fit for us. Much like the hundreds of other budget friendly hotels in the area, it had a private bathroom, wifi, air conditioning, and no view. At $36USD a night for a triple room, it was definitely on the expensive side for our trip. Booking ahead of time definitely raised the price.

We spent the first few days wandering around the city trying not to get hit by motorbikes and cars. We visited the Ben Thanh Market, which was more touristy than we had hoped, and the Chinese Market, which ended up being more of a wholesale market than we thought it would be. We also checked out the War Museum and the Ho Chi Minh City Museum.

When we needed a break from the heat, we visited one of the local breweries in town. Pasteur Street Brewery Company offers six beers served in a small upstairs bar. We ordered the flight of beers and for around 175,000VND. It was expensive but tasty. We also visited The View Rooftop Bar on Bui Vien. The bar and restaurant has multiple floors, good drink prices (around 45,000VND for a mixed drink and 12,000VND for a local beer during happy hour), and cool breezes to help you unwind.

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While in the city, we spent most of our time looking for delicious food and then eating that food. We didn’t have to look far when it came to street food and small restaurants. When choosing a place, we looked for busy spots and always asked for the prices up front if they weren’t posted. We ate phở, bún, meat on a stick, and every rice and meat dish we could find. We could usually find dishes between 25,000 and 45,000VND. When in doubt, we would check out the small streets (like alleyways) for delicious food. We ate a few times on one specific small street; To find it, look for an Indian restaurant called Taj Mahal . We ate at Taj Mahal one night when we needed a break from Vietnamese food, and then headed down that alleyway and ate whatever we could find that tickled our fancy already back in the mood for a local treat.

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My first bowl of pho in Vietnam but definitely not my last.

At night when we were ready to grab a drink or two, we headed to Bui Vien street. It’s a backpackers haven and a great place to find cheap drinks, but be cautious. We stuck to the small bars and restaurants with listed prices and red or blue chairs out front. There are definitely more expensive bars on this street and they are looking for a way to separate you from your money.

Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam

Saving money on accommodations in Europe

All hotels, hostels, and guesthouses in western Europe must post their star rating on the outside of their establishment. The star rating has everything to do with amenities and price and nothing to do with how nice it actually is. Also, at the front desk, a list of room prices must be displayed for all guests to see. This is very helpful when trying to stay on a budget. Also, it is very common to ask to see the room and tell the front desk you are looking at a few hotels and will be back if you choose their hotel or guesthouse. This is a great way to see how far your money can go. Sometimes when I travel and am staying in one town for more than a few nights, I will book a hotel for the first night and then take an hour or so to walk around to other hotels and see if I can find a better deal. This works best in the off season.
Saving money on accommodations in Europe

Northern Italy

On our most recent trip, we decided to take the road less traveled in Italy, skip all of the major cities, and head to Parma, Alba, and Cogne. Italy is hard to visit on a budget, but it can be done. What we found while doing research was that hotels and apartment rentals for September were about the same price in the towns we visited, around 80-100€ a night. This is above our regular budget, but we would not have saved much money staying in private rooms in hostels. Also, for budget reasons, we did not rent a car which added to the convenience pricing of staying right in town.

The first thing I need to explain/share is the idea of aperitivo in Italy. I googled this before we went and the information I found was not as accurate as I would have liked. Aperitivo or aperitivi (plural) is when bars and some restaurants give you a small plate of snacks with every drink you order. Generally, this takes place between 5pm and 9pm. Sometimes, the drink is more expensive because it comes with food, but others charge the same price, about 3-5€ per drink. With each drink ordered, another small plate of snacks (potato chips, small sandwiches, etc.) come to the table. But, unlike what I read before we went, we saw no “buffet” from which we could eat. Aperitivo is a great way to have a few drinks and snacks and therefore be able to eat a smaller dinner or no dinner at all. Watch the drink prices because it could become more expensive than just going out to dinner.

On to the trip itself. In Parma, we rented an apartment on the west side of the river. Nothing special but the kitchen came in handy for breakfasts and snacking. We were lucky enough to be in Parma for the Prosciutto Festival. We toured the Fontana Ham factory which was very informative and interesting. The town itself was beautiful and full of great restaurants (a foodie’s dream). The prices were not out of control and we never felt pressured to order both a first and second course as is sometimes the case.

Fontana Ham Factory tour.
Alba was a lovely little town with a wonderfully preserved city center. It is also in the heart of the Piedmont wine country. Surrounding Alba in every direction are towns that must be explored and visited for their sites as well as their wines. We went to Barolo, Novello, Barbaresco, Guarene, Roddi, Bra, and Grinzane Cavour.
 
Here are my warnings about the wine region of Piedmont. Attractions (castles, museums, enoteche) are closed on odd days and at odd times of the year that are not always predictable. Also, while I was very excited to visit the enoteche (wine tasting centers) around the region, I was disappointed in what I found. I read that the enoteche were great places to try different wines from the region without having to make reservations at the actual wineries. (click here for website I referenced). While the enoteche regionale were nice and usually housed in historic buildings, they only offered a few wines for anywhere between 1-4€ per tasting. Knowing this, I recommend looking around town for the privately run enoteche, as well as visiting the enoteche regionale. Also, look for the sign “gratis degustazione.” We found shops that offered free tastings in hope that you would buy wine from them.
 
In Cogne, we were able to rent a small apartment for about 60€ per night right in town. While we waited for the bus in Aosta (the only public transportation to Cogne), we made a quick trip to Billa (grocery store) and picked up meat, cheese, bread, etc. for breakfasts to come. This was cheaper than buying food in Cogne. We took full advantage of the Gran Paradiso National Park while visiting. Entrance is free and, while the trail distances are a bit misleading, the scenery is beautiful. We took sandwiches and some fruit with us and had a picnic at the waterfall near Lillaz.
We also took a journey (two buses and a one mile walk) to see the castle in Fenis. While we had heard it was one of the better castles in the area, I would recommend seeing other castles closer to where you are staying. The castle in Fenis was fine but it was a hassle to get to without a car and the guided tour that you must take is only offered in Italian. Valle d’Aosta has a great tourism site with a list of all the castles in the region.
 
Finally, here are my last two recommendations on visiting Italy and trying to save some money while doing it. When wine tasting in northern Italy, drink everything. But if you are on a budget, check out the Nebbiolos, the local Pinot Noirs, and the Torrettes. They are, in my opinion, delicious bold, red wines but are cheaper than Barolo. Also, in our experience, the public transportation system through smaller towns and cities is not great if you are (a) on a tight schedule (b) are not comfortable with Italian, or (c) have little patience. Most trains don’t run into the mountainous areas. For this, you must rely on buses and most inter-city buses don’t run during lunchtime (approximately noon – 3pm). Buses also don’t seem to run very often, on average less than once an hour. Meaning, if you want to go somewhere, do so early with the understanding that you might be there until the afternoon. If you are one with little patience (as I sometimes am), I would recommend looking into renting a car especially if you want to set your own schedule and move from town to town freely. That being said, the buses were extremely affordable, on average 2-3€ per hour on short bus trips. While we got lost, almost stuck, and accidentally rode the school bus to the wrong town, the views were amazing and well worth the money saved and the time “wasted.”
Northern Italy