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

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

Tam Cốc, Vietnam

We had a crazy travel day getting to the town of Tam Cốc. We took a morning train from Hue to Da Nang (70,000VND for a one-way ticket). Next, we took a Vietjet Air flight from Da Nang to Hai Phong. The plan was to then take a taxi from the airport to the bus station and, if we could, get a bus to Ninh Binh that night. If not, we’d stay the night in Hai Phong.

We hopped in a taxi at the airport and told the driver to take us to the bus station that would get us to Ninh Binh. While in the end he did get us to the correct bus station, we thought he was taking us on a wild ride instead of to the bus station. After arguing with the driver about the metered fare, we made it just in time to hop on the bus going to Ninh Binh. We arrived in Ninh Binh around 11:15 p.m. I want to point out that I am by no means recommending this route; I included it so others know that it’s possible.

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I believe we were taken to the new bus station (starred on the map) to catch a bus to Ninh Binh. The taxi driver told us the old one had closed.

We had booked a hotel while en route since it was going to be late when we arrived. (Did I mention it was also raining?) We chose the AIQ Hotel because it had the best reviews of the budget hotels in Ninh Binh (around $20USD a night), but the hotel was not nice at all; smelly bathroom, mold on the walls, and hard, moldy beds. Thankfully, we were only there to sleep. The next morning we took a taxi to Tam Cốc.

We stayed at a hotel called Tuấn Ngọc Hotel in Tam Cốc. It’s located just outside of town with wonderful views of the karsts. A triple room with a small private balcony, a large common area balcony, air conditioning, and breakfast cost 468,000VND per night. We stayed in Tam Cốc for three nights and made the best of our time there even though the rainy weather tried to hold us back.

During our time in Tam Cốc, we walked to some of the pagodas, temples, and caves. Our favorite day by far was when we rented bikes from our hotel (40,000VND per bike) and rode out to Thung Nham (also known as the Bird Sanctuary). We rode through the amazing beauty of this place and hiked when bikes wouldn’t do (like when entering the three caves near the front of the park). The entrance fee was 110,000VND per person. While in the bird sanctuary, we took a short boat trip into a cave. It lasted about 20 minutes and cost about 20,000VND plus tip. We decided to take this boat trip instead of taking the one that leaves from the middle of Tam Cốc. We did not have a single clear day while in Tam Cốc so we passed on paying the 390,000VND for two people because we were already getting the same views of the karsts on our hiking trips and our bike ride.

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Enjoying the boat ride, the view, and being off our feet even for a short while.
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A walking bridge in the Bird Sanctuary.
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Kyle and I enjoying the view and resting for a minute.

The food in Tam Cốc was not amazing though was reasonably cheap as it is a hot spot for day tours from Hanoi. Shop around and find a cheap option or you could be surprised by a large bill.

When we left Tam Cốc, we headed to Cat Ba Island. To get there, we booked a bus and ferry combination from our hotel in Tam Cốc. It cost 350,000VND per person and while it was expensive it seemed like the best option. We had read that ferries heading to Cat Ba Island left from the Ben Binh port in Hai Phong, but in actuality only the fast ferries leave from Ben Binh and arrive in the port at the center of Cat Ba Town. The slow ferry (which is what we paid for) leaves from another port in Hai Phong and arrives on the Bến phà Cái Viềng port on the west side of Cat Ba Island. Returning to Hai Phong from Cat Ba, we took the fast ferry (180,000VND instead of 130,000VND for the slow ferry) which dropped us off at the Ben Binh port.

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This is the Ben Binh port in Hai Phong where the fast ferries to and from Cat Ba Island leave. The fast ferries arrive at the port in Cat Ba Town, not on the edge of the island.
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This is where the slow ferry arrives from Cat Ba Island and leaves from Hai Phong.
Tam Cốc, Vietnam

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

San Cristobal de Las Casas, Chiapas, Mexico

San Cristobal is a lovely colonial town that also feels like an acutal town. While there are more tourists (English speakers are more prevalent here), and there is some of the bothersome focus on selling things to tourists, there is something about the town that also feels normal; locals just going about their day.
Ominous clouds over San Cristobal
We spent a lot of time wandering around the regular, everyday market (food, housewares, etc.) not to be confused with the craft market (ceramics, textiles, souvenirs, etc.). It is a never ending maze of stalls.
 
We also ate lunch in the market most days we were there; taco and caldos (soups and meat dishes that sometimes include rice and beans, but always include corn tortillas) were the main choices. Once again (see blog entry Chiapa de Corzo), speaking Spanish is a must. But the food was good, plentiful, and cheap. The average meal we had in the market was around $25 MXN. I am not sure what the custom is on tipping at these food stalls but we tipped a small amount, maybe $5 MXN each time. Knowing how much we were saving, we felt that we could afford to be generous.
Carne asada tacos con cebolla
We chose not to visit the nearby Mayan villages after reading on other blogs that the locals in those villages were not always interested in people coming to stare at them. So instead, we went out to a park called Archotete and it was well worth it. 

We took a taxi most of the way to the park which cost about $60 MXN. We had read online that the taxi would be closer to $30 MXN but since there were two of us, maybe the cost was per person. We walked the rest of the way, about a mile down a gravel road through a small town.

Me crossing a shaky bridge in Archotete park.

The entrance fee for the park was $10 MXN per person. We were two of four people visiting the park that day so we had the trails to ourselves. We paid an extra $10 MXN to go into a cave and we made friends with the local stray dog. After a few hours of hiking, we decided to take a taxi back from the park instead of walking down to the main road which cost $80 MXN.

The grotto in Archotete park
We named this dog Omar.
There are a lot of beautiful churches to visit in town and some great bars and restaurants to relax in. One of the cheapest bars we encountered was on Real Guadalupe called La Vina de Bacco. It’s a wine and tapas bar with their cheapest glass of wine starting at $18 MXN. They also serve beer and mixed drinks. There also seems to be a lot of live music venues around town.
San Cristobal de Las Casas, Chiapas, Mexico

Panama City, Panama

We stayed in Panama City for a few days and I think that was enough for us. While the city seemed nicer and safer than other Central American capitals we have been to, it’s not a budget friendly city. All the hotels/hostels seemed either cheap and really rough or okay but not worth the money for what you get. We stayed in the Las Vegas hotel and paid about $85 for a double room. And while it was adequate (air conditioning, wifi, fridge & microwave, good location), it seemed expensive compared to the rest of the country.

We went to Casco Viejo which was nice looking but seemed like a false front when you have already seen the real city. I do, however, recommend taking a cab (about $5 per person) out to Panama Viejo to see the ruins. It’s free to wander the grounds and look at the beginnings of the city. We did not pay to get into the museum so it was a cheap outing. Also, we went out to the Panama Canal to see ships go through the locks. To save some money, I recommend only paying for the observation deck. Skip the museum and 3-D movie and watch the PBS special before you go.
While in the city we ate some great food but it was harder to find a good, cheap meal. Prepare to spend about $10-$20 per person on lunch or dinner in Panama City. We ate at Beirut and Caffe Pomodoro after having had our fill of Panamanian cuisine. Also, on average the national beers (Atlas, Balboa, and Panama beers) were $2.50 in the capital.
Panama City, Panama