We stayed in a collection of pre-fabricated, albeit poshly decorated, holiday rentals right in John O Groats. Natural Retreats has a great location right near the coast, though their website makes it seem like there are far less of these rentals than in reality. This means some of the rentals don’t have the best of views but being so close to the water was a perk nonetheless. The rental was $58USD per person per night and though that is a little higher than my average nightly budget, it was a lovely apartment with everything we needed.
There isn’t much in John o’ Groats other than tourist shops (knicknacks, a coffee shop, and a fish n’ chips shack), but the scenery was lovely and it’s a great base to explore the area from. There is also a ferry dock within walking distance that can take you to the Orkney Islands. There are a handful of ferry ports near John o Groats so make sure to pick the one that fits your needs and schedule best.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
On a recent trip to Jordan, my traveling mate, Katie, and I started our adventure off in Madaba. About a 30-minute drive from the Queen Alia International Airport, it’s a smaller, more manageable town than Amman. We stayed at the Mosaic City Hotel for JD47 a night for a double room. The hotel was updated and clean with a good breakfast and helpful staff. Free wifi was offered, but barely worked (you will see this recurring theme through my other blog entries about Jordan and Israel).
The main sights in Madaba, including the mosaic map at St. George’s Church (JD1), the Madaba Archeological Parks (JD2), and the Shrine of the Beheading of St. John the Baptist (JD1), can be seen within one day. A special note about St. John’s: I feel as though it was worth more than the JD1 entrance fee. The church offers an interesting photo gallery in the visitors’ center, a bell tower climb, and a self-guided tour of the 3,000-year-old ruins under the church. Unlike at other sights we visited, the gentleman staffing St. John’s was enthusiastic about their offerings and was willing to chat and answer questions. Most sights in Madaba close around 5 p.m., so it’s best to start early in the day. We didn’t inquire about entering the mosques in town since none were advertised as sights to see. We ate at Haret Jdoudna twice in the three days we spent in Madaba. The restaurant is in an old home and also has a handicraft market. I was pleasantly surprised at its authentic and delicious local dishes after seeing that it was rated #1 on TripAdvisor (I’m usually disappointed with the restaurants that make it to the top of TripAdvisor lists). The crowd was a good mix of tourists and locals. A very filling lunch or dinner cost about JD10 per person.
Haret Jdoudna restaurant
We also stopped in Cafe Ayola. and, while the food was good and cheap (about JD5 per meal), the food options and condiments were very Westernized (think hot dogs, barbecue sauce, and ranch dressing all on the same plate).
We visited the ruins and were pleasantly surprised at how well preserved and expansive they were. We were also surprised that we were allowed to climb up most of the ruins.
The cost to get in is nominal but know that outside of the ruins, everything gets pretty expensive compared to the other areas of Chiapas we visited. In the restaurants near the hotel area of town, entrees start at around $100 MXN. We stayed at the Chablis Hotel which was fine but at $60 USD a night, it was standard for the area but still more than I would have liked to spend. We ate in the gringo area a few times but also went into town across the bridge and ate at some of the small restaurants there. They were much less expensive, about $12 MXN per taco.
If I were to retake this trip and were on an even tighter budget, I would have taken one of the tours from San Cristobal to Palenque to see the ruins and visit Miso-Ha and Aqua Azul in one day. We took the bus from San Cristobal to Palenque for $112 MXN, then took a colectivo to and from the ruins for a total of $80 MXN, the two entrance fees for the ruins (one for the park, one for the ruins) for $87 MXN, a tour that took us to Misol-Ha and Aqual Azul for $150 MXN, and finally the bus ticket back to San Cristobal for $176 MXN. So all of this comes out to $605 MXN per person. There were tours from San Cristobal that included Palenque, Miso-Ha, and Aqual Azul for $450-600 MXN. I think by staying in Palenque for three nights (so that we would have two full days to visit the ruins and the waterfalls), we actually spent more money than if we would have just crammed it all into one day. But at least we could take our time at the ruins and have time to relax. I guess that’s the trade off.
We went to Chiapa de Corzo to wander around the square and to take a boat tour of Sumidero Canyon. We also took some time to go into the market and eat some delicious food. Choose any stall that is busy but know that a) most stalls only serve one kind of food (tacos, tamales, caldos, etc.) and that b) Spanish is a must. But you’ll save yourself a lot of money by eating in the market than going to the restaurants near the river. A plate of three tacos cost about $20 MXN whereas the menu del dia at the restaurants on the river cost about $65 MXN.
The tour of the canyon is well worth the $160 MXN and takes about two hours but know that information is only given in Spanish. It seems as though there is only one tour company that runs these tours. We found a booth on the square but you can also go directly to the river to purchase tickets.
While in town, we saw a ruin of some sort up on a hill near the church (which is on another hill) overlooking Chiapa de Corzo. It’s well worth the short walk uphill for the ruin and the views of the area.
To get to Chiapa de Corzo from Tuxtla, you must take an autobus to an area called Soriano (I think it’s one of the bus depots but I’m not sure). At Soriano, on the roadside, there will be colectivo drivers hollering for passengers going to different destinations that are close-by. The cost was $12 MXN each way.