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

General Notes on Visiting Greece

–Throughout our three week trip in Greece we noticed that the Greek people working in tourism do not make things easier on you when it comes to explaining how things work or posting signage. For example, we arrived on Santorini and went to the bus station; at the station, there is a kiosk with a person sitting inside. It appears that this is the person from whom you would buy tickets or to whom you could ask questions. When we asked this person questions, he seemed annoyed at having to answer them. Another example is that all the local buses on Santorini begin and end at the bus station in Fira. One would think that putting a sign in the front window of the bus listing the route would be helpful, but they do not do this. It begs the question: if Greek people are frustrated by having to help tourists repeatedly, why would they not make travel clearer and easier for tourists and locals alike?

–Greek house wine is cheap, but it is usually young wine and not amazing. Also, Greece is known for their white wines, not their reds as I would have hoped.

–Most restaurants charge around 1 per person for a basket of bread. If you do not want it, you can usually say so and not pay for it. However, if you are going to eat it, don’t let the charge bother you and eat up. It’s usually delicious. We tended to ask for olive oil, salt, and pepper if they weren’t already on the table. Also, if we didn’t finish all of the bread, we would take it with us. If we paid for it, it’s ours.

–Sometimes, at the end of a meal in a restaurant, you get a free dessert or a shot of ouzo or raki. This seems to happen in the less touristy areas and restaurants. This definitely did not happen on Santorini, ever.

–Here is the rule of thumb I used when it came to drinking tap water: If restaurants serve you glasses of water (as many do and it’s free), it’s generally safe. If restaurants serve you bottled water (it is not usually free), it’s unsafe to drink the tap water. Generally the tap water on the mainland is drinkable and the tap water on the islands is not drinkable, but ask to be sure. We also tended to ask for tap water on the mainland to save some money. All of the waiters we asked either gave us tap water or gave us a reason why they only serve bottled water.

–Water (tap or bottled) is generally given for free with the purchase of coffee but not tea.

–My friend Rheanna and I found that we could easily share one appetizer and one entree and still be stuffed after eating at most restaurants.

–I would recommend visiting Greece in September or early October. We were there is late October and early November and while we really enjoyed ourselves, we definitely missed out on restaurants and shops that were already closed for the season. And after talking with locals, I cannot recommend going during the summer months. Everyone I spoke with said June through August is so overrun that it’s not as enjoyable for tourists as it could be earlier or later in the year.

–Learning about 50 words of Greek was very helpful. As usual, it endeared us to locals and helped us visit restaurants and bars that were off the beaten path.

–Here is a link to the ferry schedule. This site was much more accurate than we had expected even in the off season.

General Notes on Visiting Greece

Santorini, Greece

My friend Rheanna and I spent two days on Santorini. We were skeptical about our visit because of the high profile of the island. We stayed in Fira because it is so centrally located and we had limited time on the island. It’s definitely not a beautiful town, but it worked for our needs. We stayed at the Fira Backpacker’s Place. We booked a private room through Airbnb.com. For $71USD a night, it is one of cheapest places to stay on the island.

The town of Oia is worth visiting and is the quintessential Greek town. If you are going for the day, I highly recommend going early in the morning before it gets too busy. Keep in mind it is incredibly expensive compared to other Greek islands and towns. The rest of the island has a lot to offer so don’t spend all your time and money there. We visited a few of the wineries (check opening hours if you’re there outside of the tourist season), hiking trails, and beaches. The bus system was very helpful, somewhat easy to use (with little help from the drivers), and was the only cheap thing on the island.

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We used the buses to get to some of the wineries on the island as well. We took the bus towards the airport/Kamari. On the route back, it stops near the town of Exo Gonia. There are a handful of wineries that are walking distance from each other. We visited Art Space Winery and Estate Argyros as well as Artemis Karamolegos, which also has a restaurant. Here is a link that helped us find all of the wineries.

 

 

 

Santorini, Greece

Plovdiv, Bulgaria

After two days of hiking, we headed toward Plovdiv. The drive took longer than expected and our fellow drivers were making me nervous (see my blog entry regarding the roads  and drivers of Bulgaria). Instead of making it all the way to Plovdiv, we rerouted and went to the Todoroff Hotel.

The hotel includes a spa, a winery, and a restaurant. We arrived with the idea that we would taste their wines and then maybe spend the night. By the time we got there, the wine tasting had ended for the day but the restaurant was open, so we grabbed a bottle of their Mavrud wine and ordered a few appetizers. As we drank the delicious wine (and realized that we could no longer drive the rental car), we asked about staying the night. We had seen it on Booking.com for $56USD for a double room. We inquired at the front desk and they offered us a “single room” (which included a double bed, not a queen bed) for $43USD including parking and breakfast. We took it. While this may not seem like the frugal option, we wondered where else we could stay at a winery for less than $50USD.

Once we dropped our stuff in the room, we decided that we needed more drinks. We wandered towards the center of town (about a 15 minute walk) and found an establishment with a Coca-Cola sign out front and a bunch of men drinking inside. We decided to go for it. Once inside, we realized that this was not really a bar but more a convenience store/restaurant/bar. We ordered two beers and one rakia. The rakia was the equivalent of four shots. We stumbled out of there having only spent 7BGN.

We only spent two days in Plovdiv so I don’t have a lot of recommendations. We spend most of our time wandering the Old Town. We did, however, pop into a wine bar called Vino Culture one afternoon and loved it so much we went back that evening for more drinks, tapas, and live music. It was such a great little space and I highly recommend a visit. We also visited a bar called Nylon which was a great little find. It felt like a neighborhood hangout and while it seemed like we were the only out-of-town visitors there, we felt welcomed.

The Roman Amphitheater in Plovdiv.
The Roman Amphitheater in Plovdiv.

There is also a fortress and a monastery near Plovdiv. We did not have the opportunity to visit them though we wish we had. If you have time, visit Asen’s Fortress and the Bachkovo Monastery.

I have read many blogs that compared Veliko Tarnovo and Plovdiv and chose one town over another. I would argue that both towns are worth a visit. Plovdiv seems like a regular town that has an Old Town area that attracts tourist. But there is a lot of shopping, art, and cultural options there as well. On the other hand, Veliko Tarnovo seems like a town focused on tourism with a real town hidden behind it. While there is a lot of public art, it feels like tourism is the focus. If I would have had more time on this trip, I would have spent more time in both towns to see what else they have to offer. Check out the Plovdiv tourism website as it is helpful and includes an events calendar which is very extensive. Here are other blogs and websites that I found helpful.

http://davidsbeenhere.com/2014/07/11/travel-guide-plovdiv-bulgaria-see/
http://www.freerangetravel.com/things-to-do-and-see-in-plovdiv-bulgaria/
http://wikitravel.org/en/Plovdiv

Plovdiv, Bulgaria

Lancaster, PA

When a friend told me that she’d decided to have her wedding in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, I was skeptical about the choice. When she followed it up with the fact that the town has a brewery and a distillery, I was intrigued. When I arrived for the long weekend, I was excited. Lancaster is full of great restaurants and bars, a plethora of art galleries, and a central market that makes your feel like you’re in Europe.

We rented a private ensuite room through Airbnb.com from a lively woman named Bobbie. Her place is about a 15 minute walk from downtown, but there are restaurants and a few shops close by. Downtown has a lot to offer and didn’t have the touristy feel of some other quaint, historic towns on the East coast.

Between wedding duties and events, we explored. We found the pop-up park with food trucks, the Spring House Brewery, and the slightly hidden combined location of the Thistle Finch Distillery and Wacker Brewery.

This is the drink list from Thistle Finch Distillery.
This is the drink list from Thistle Finch Distillery.

We grabbed drinks at Annie Bailey’s, an Irish pub with live music on Saturdays. We also popped into Tellus360 (next door to Annie Bailey’s) for some food and more drinks. The food wasn’t inspiring but the drink list was extensive (including many whiskey flight options and local cold-pressed juice cocktails). What makes Tellus360 a great spot is their set-up. The space is four floors plus a rooftop area. They have ping pong tables, dart boards, and a pool table to keep you entertained.

We also had dinner at Aussie and the Fox and were impressed with the delicious food. For about $20 a person (without drinks), we shared a handful of starters, and left full and happy. We also heard rave reviews about the restaurant Pour, though we didn’t make it there ourselves.

We didn’t have a car in Lancaster, which wasn’t much of a problem. We walked just about everywhere and called Uber the few times we needed a ride. If you plan to take time to explore the surrounding area, having a car would be necessary.

While we were sad to leave this picturesque town after an amazing weekend of food, booze, and friends, I would definitely come back for the hospitality, history, and all-around relaxing atmosphere.

My husband and I dragged ourselves to the Amtrak station to make the journey back to the Phily airport. We grabbed one way Amtrak tickets to Philadelphia for about $19 each and then transferred at 30th Street Station to the SEPTA regional rail to the airport for another $8 each. From beginning to end, the trip took about 2 hours.

Lancaster, PA