The Mayan Highway (Mexico, Belize, Honduras)

I entered in to Mexico through Cancun once l left Cuba. My initial plan was to stay in Cancun but after meeting Igor in Havana, he told me to take a bus straight to Playa del Carmen which is about 40-minutes south of Cancun and l while l can’t speak about Cancun, Playa was beautiful and l fell in love very quickly. I spent 3 nights here where l stayed in the Yak hostel and joined a few of their activities including a class on how to make mojitos, which turned into more of a learn to make a mojito and then drink as much as you can with the remaining time left in the hour. While at the Yak, l saw a guy called Viktor from Sweden who l had actually met in Cienfuegos in Cuba and a Turkish-German guy by the name of Kc (pronounced Casey) who has actually been travelling for 3 years and only going home for a few months here and there.

Viktor left after my first night (remember him though), and then that was when l met Kc and we formed some laughs over the next couple of days. On the 3rd day we joined the hostel in playing volleyball but with the volunteer that was taking us to the net, not having any interest and literally walking off to go swimming, we did what we could. Here we met a beautiful Israeli girl by the name of Shani and our duo turned into a trio. We played some South American guys in a 3v3 beach football game and as we were playing for drinks, they thought they had it in the bag, however when Shani beat all 3 of them in one run, l think they became a little scared….. we won the game and they paid up.

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Playa del Carmen beach

I left Playa and headed to Tulum via a collectivo taxi, which was cheaper than the bus at only 40 pesos and once again l was on my own. I heard that Tulum beach was beautiful but also the town was close to Coba. I arrived into Tulum and realised the beach was 7kms away from the town so while l did visit it both days to have a swim, would l say it is worth it? My answer is no. My second day in Tulum l headed out to Coba which is a group of Mayan ruins, and while not on the wonders of the world list like Chicken Itza, said to be beautiful in its own way because its set more in the jungle and it is beautiful and cheaper, the only problem is the bus to Coba. It leaves at 10am and doesn’t return until 3pm and once you have spent about 2 hours at Coba (I was walking too and not cycling), you are left with a lot of time to kill and there isn’t much to do in the town. The story of the day though is once l had visited the big popular temple, l went out to the further one and not many tourists went this way so l was alone on this track and as l headed around a bend, a person was waking the other way and it could have been anyone but on second look, l couldn’t believe it but Viktor made an appearance.

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Coba’s main temple

When l first entered Mexico, l wanted a few days to relax and do nothing at all to a point where l could sleep and not be questioned why l was being so lazy. I had the opportunity to space out and do this in a town called Bacalar. Bacalar is situated about an hour north of the Mexico-Belize border and inland but is situated on a lagoon but known as the lagoon of 7 colours. To get here, you have to take a bus and ADO is the main first class bus service in Mexico. The cost is about 220 pesos. I stayed at Blue Monkey hostel which was right on the lagoon and had its own jetty so l could walk straight down in the morning and dive straight in for a morning swim, which l did take advantage of every morning. I spent 4 nights here and was the perfect time to rest. I should also mention that on my third night, Viktor made another appearance and we both stayed the final 2 nights and then headed off to Chetumal via another collectivo taxi costing 40 pesos each.

Here Viktor and l separated again as he headed onto Caye Caulker and l was staying in Chetumal for a couple of nights. I only decided to stay in Chetumal due to the sole reason that when l was in Cuba, l was speaking to an American lady who told me to visit the zoo here as it is more of an eco-zoo. On my 1 full day l had there, the owner of Downtown Hostel in Chetumal lent me his bicycle for free and l rode up to the Mayan museum which is one of the best in Mexico to learn more about the Mayan culture and life. It cost 73 pesos to enter and while it wasn’t all that big, it was still nice to see and learn a bit of world history. I moved onto the zoo after this and it looked like a rundown place from the outside. It cost me 20 pesos to enter and once you are through the front gates, its well looked after and all the animals looked happy but then again, l’m no animal expert. The camel looked like it wanted to spit on me or anyone who walked past (I say anyone because being midweek, there was about 20 people there and 2 school groups), and as l also had plenty of time looking at animals by myself, l did spend some good quality time with the monkeys trying to play games with them.

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Chetumal sign

After Mexico, I headed by bus into Belize, once again without much planned except that l wanted to take the boat from Belize to Honduras and it only runs once a week on Fridays. I had booked 2 nights in Belize City and when l arrived, it quickly dawned on me why a lot of people say not to stay in Belize City. It is not that the city is dangerous but more the fact there is literally nothing to do in the city. I met up with Viktor again (I know, it’s funny to think we didn’t plan any of this) and we both had a look around on trip advisor for what to do and when number one is a small bridge on the main road, we decided to move onto San Ignacio where we could conduct a day tour to the Actun Tunichil Muknal cave or better known as the ATM cave. The tour cost $95usd ($125aud) but it was completely worth it except that we were not allowed to take cameras due to past incidents with tourists and the Mayan artifacts.

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Stock photo provided by Mayawalk tours as we were not allowed to take cameras on the tour

Viktor and l separated once more (and at time of writing, we have not crossed paths again) and l headed onto Dangriga on the coast of Belize where l was planning to take the boat from on the Friday. I was told that Dangriga is the cultural centre of Belizean music however when l arrived and l asked the information lady about where to go to experience this, she kindly informed me that is wasn’t until the weekends which wasn’t going to work for me, so l went for a walk to see all l could in Dangriga which, if you could believe this, is less than Belize City. I was the only one at my hostel for the first 2 nights which was right on the beach which could make things look up, except for the fact that the water a dirty brown colour, at least l was entertained by the local Belizean premier league football team training every night right out front my door.

Friday came and l was excited to get moving again after a couple of unexpected rest days. I walked onto the jetty as where l was instructed to get the boat from however was turned around by a bus driver telling me l was in the wrong location. Walk back a different direction for 15 minutes before l find a travel agent to get clarification, turns out l was in the right place to start with. The boat arrived and once l had paid for my ticket, $67.50usd ($89aud) one way which includes departure tax from Belize, the rough sea crossing to Honduras began.

I arrived in Puerto Cortes, which is the major port town of Honduras, where l experienced a rude start to a new country. I was highly ripped off by the money exchange man and then being no other taxi service around (I needed to take one to the local bus station) l used the same company the guy works for and his friend would stop at a bank for me, but when the first ATM didn’t work, he took me to another 2 and charged me an extra 50 Lempira (). It doesn’t seem like much, but in central America and being a budget backpacker, then that could mean money towards a whole meal. I was shoved onto a local bus to take me into San Pedro Sula where l planned to stay a couple of nights and while the city was large, it didn’t have all that much to do either while it is also known to be one of the most dangerous cities in one of the most dangerous countries in the world, it had a vibe of everyone was watching you.

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The ‘international’ jetty to Honduras

I spent 2 nights in San Pedro and then took the long slow bus journey down to Managua, the capital city of Nicaragua to visit Gabriela who is a friend l met in Myanmar and then onto the rest of the country which will be in the following blog.

Below is the ferry option to Honduras. Note before, the times have changed and it actually arrives in Dangriga at 11am with arrival time in Honduras around 4pm. Starla ferry is the company and they do have a website.

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Bahamian love

The Bahamas. A country of overs 700 islands and cays, which they will constantly remind you about and a currency that is 1 for 1 with the US dollar and quite expensive as everything has to be imported in from the USA.

I flew in Nassau, which is the capital of the Bahamas, without anything booked other than my first couple of nights’ accommodation, a flight out and a plan to visit the swimming pigs. I flew in with Bahamas air and even though the flight is only 45-minutes, if you have a bottom that is bigger than a small child, there is a good chance you will not fit in the seats properly.

Once l had landed, there were only taxis from the airport (which l have later found out that there is a bus, but they are not allowed on airport property) and had to bargain to get a $20 ride into town as my accommodation or more-so tent in the front yard of an Airbnb hosts property, would not be ready until 3pm…. I arrived at 9am.

I proceeded to head to the ferry terminal as l was told the cheapest way around to other islands, to which l found a ferry that worked a very tight schedule to me but would work for $70 each way in an overnight journey which would save me some money each way on accommodation. I headed back into town and found a bar to sit and relax until 3pm and with $3.23 local beers, it made the afternoon fly by all that little bit quicker. I headed onto my Airbnb or should l say tent after another taxi ride which l paid $15 for but was later advised it should have been $10 and worked out my plan for the remainder day of my stay.

There is a bus system in Nassau which is not properly signed anywhere you go and you just have to ask around for where they pick up in downtown, however each bus is $1.25 for any trip and no matter what, every bus goes to downtown during its route. I spent my second day walking around downtown checking out the city but as l was being strict on my budget, l couldn’t enter any museums. I did spend some money however on a conch salad, which is a fresh made salad with conch (a sea creature kind of like a mussel), and a highly praised local dish which also acts as an aphrodisiac for me.

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Sunset from the overnight ferry to Exuma

Day 3 and l was off on my ferry to Great Exuma island with is one of the southern major islands with its main city being Georgetown. My ferry was a basic main cabin shared with locals as it was actually a freight ship and the beds l was told about, well they came in the form of 3 seats next to each other which it was possible to lie down on. The ride took 12 hours which was 2 hours faster than expected even though we were hitting 3 to 4 meter swell and the boat was moving all over with a lot of people falling sick. My Airbnb hosts, Mel and Freddie, on Exuma had kindly offered to pick me up, so l had to wait around for the next 2.5 hours for my ride but was worth it as Freddie proceeded to show me all the main parts of Georgetown so l couldn’t get lost.

I spent my first day walking around Georgetown, checking out the sites to see, the crystal clear blue water that is actually real and not just a photoshop trick in the magazines and sampling some local cooking at the local fish fry. What is a fish fry? It is a series of little shacks set up on the water where the locals consider the real food of the Bahamas is cooked and served. Each island has their own fish fry district and is usually cheaper than any restaurants.

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View from my Airbnb in Exuma

Day 2 of Exuma was the main reason l decided to head into the Bahamas in the first place. I had booked a tour with Exuma water tours to take me to the famous swimming pigs. The tour started with a sightseeing section of expensive private islands like the one owned by  and Tim Mcgraw/Faith Hill’s private island. Our first stop was off at a cave we had to swim to get in to which was close to a sunken drug plane, followed by the pigs. This is a sight to see, the story is that they were shipwrecked on the island and they survived by learning to swim which now they are now protected by the government. We then moved onto swimming with a sandbar, nurse sharks, lunch and a visit to the endanged rock iguanas of the Bahamas. The tour cost me $200USD but the day was worth every cent.

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Pig Beach

The following day, l headed back to Nassau in the afternoon, again by overnight ferry that was a smoother ride than the first one and onto the airport for my flight to Cuba.

Tips:

  • The bus from the airport is 12b. You might have to wait 30-minutes but the bus will come despite what all the people like taxi drivers say at the airport. To catch the bus, walk to the far left of the terminals and walk down the road to the roundabout out front, wait on the side of the road and hail the bus when it comes. To return to the airport, the bus leaves from McDonalds in downtown. Its across from the Hilton hotel. A taxi will cost about $25 for the same journey.
  • Each bus ride will cost $1.25 no matter how far you go and every bus route will go via downtown in its route.
  • There is another version of the Fish fry in Nassau at the ferry boat terminal which is not as nice as it looks like a back street but the food is still fresh and the people are all friendly
  • Mail boats. These exist as the cheapest option in The Bahamas to travel around, however they run on a very loose schedule and to book a ticket, you can speak to a captain or the company of the mail boat. The offices are not open on Saturday or Sunday.
  • Buy sunscreen or anything you can from America/home country before entering the Bahamas. As mentioned, it is expensive and sunscreen cost me $15 for a bottle.
  • The ferry company l travelled with was Bahamas Ferries and while they told me the journey will take 14 hours, both way was only 12 hours so be prepared for an early morning arrival. There is basic food and drink available for purchase on the ferry.
  • Tiki Bikini is a bar you will want to visit if you would like to have a drink. For $10, you can get 4 beers and 4 shots.
  • Bus 11 or 1 will take you from downtown to the ferry terminal.
  • You must try the Soda Goombay. It’s a pineapple soda and very delicious.

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Mongolia – A hidden world from tourism, a place of karaoke and with a taste of North Korea

One of the countries l have wanted to visit over the last 5 years has been Mongolia the problem is coming from Australia, China knows you need to pass through and take their airlines so it becomes expensive and the only other way is through Russia which this time around l did as l was coming from Europe, l managed to get a cheap flight with Aeroflot (Russia’s airline) for $530 AUD. I had lots of warnings and read lots of bad reviews about Aeroflot but my ‘need’ to get to Mongolia outweighed my thoughts of terrible service because as you may have previously read, l have had enough bad bus journeys that l would have considered this the same, however l cannot praise Aeroflot enough. I had 2 amazing flights with them and the service was brilliant while we did experience a little turbulence, this can’t be noted as a bad measure towards the airline.

I arrived in Ulan Bator (UB) early morning and l had minimal winter clothing. I decided to take a taxi from the airport and l am glad l did, as soon as l walked outside the nice warm temperatures of -5 degrees celsius hit me. The 30-minute taxi ride cost me 30,000mnt (about $11usd) to get to Sunpath hostel’s door in heating and even though l arrived early and that day, the hostel let me go straight to my bed and offered me breakfast which instantly won over my heart with how tired l was. The other guests at the hostel were great and we all decided to head over to the black market (not actually a black market, but just a large market where you can buy nearly anything and everything), where l could buy some winter boots and other items to keep me warm. The following couple of days, we explored the city which included visiting the main square and large statue of Genghis Khan, the winter palace and the national museum. In my opinion and speaking to a few other people, there isn’t a lot to do in UB itself unless you want to sing karaoke, well there is a pub every 10 meters that offer the service, however a lot of people who come here actually spend most of their time on tours of the countryside.

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I had organised for my time in the country to head north to a town called Murun and volunteer my time helping with a lady called Saraa with her guesthouse and women’s group. I sent her emails before l arrived and heard nothing and on the Sunday when l arrived, l still had no idea if l was going to help her or not. I had planned for 2 weeks in country and after l didn’t hear anything, l started asking other people if they had work, l got one response from another lady called Delai at a hotel for me to go and help her and then 5 minutes later, l had a response from Saraa, so l decided to split my time between the 2 places and help both out, then within the hour l was out the hostel door and onto the bus station for another overnight long distance Asian bus ride. I will never get used to these bus rides but each one is unique.

I arrived in Murun and headed straight over to Saraa’s house where l was informed that her guesthouse was closed for the season, so l would be staying in a small room with her sons and she would only need mostly help with her women’s group. I’m not terrible but l am not the greatest when it comes to understanding women and trying to organise and help with a women’s group was going to be a challenge. I was also informed that there was no shower and l could walk down the road to the public showers to pay to use them. The afternoon, l headed over to the hotel and met Delai, who offered me to stay at the hotel, where l accepted straight away because it is the little wins in life where l could shower and have a western toilet. Over the next few days, l helped where l could but l decided it wasn’t right due to the fact helping Saraa wasn’t exactly what we originally spoke about, plus she was also trying to sell me a tour which was more for less days than what l could get back in UB and then when l was staying in the hotel, l wasn’t getting the same local feel so l left back to UB to join a tour of the country side and see Mongolia, which is what l came for.

Back in UB, l met Dante at the hostel and we decided to go on a 3-day tour of central Mongolia which included the semi-gobi region to conduct camel riding, a visit to the ancient capital of Mongolia called Karakorum, horse riding while both nights we stayed with nomadic families. We had a few more people staying at my hostel that night and l heard from a friend that there was a North Korean restaurant that is a must do which l can say was an experience however you can’t take photos….unless you’re sneaky.

The next morning, we convinced Guillermo and his father who had only arrived 3 hours earlier to join us. The tour started from the hostel and our transportation, a beautifully kept soviet van the hostel offers which had plenty of room for the 4 people. We arrived after a long 5 hours out to our first ger camp with a nomadic family where we rode camels through the semi-gobi region and that night we were taught how to make horse meat dumplings which are delicious and drank a lot of vodka. I don’t drink vodka however l tried to match the locals which was always going to be a difficult task especially when they told us a tradition is if you sing, play guitar or tell a story you must drink a shot of about 2 standard shots of vodka. The family had a beautiful daughter called Iichka, she is very cheeky but a lovely little girl who loves taking selfies.

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Our second day we headed over to Karakorum to visit the site and thankfully we did hire the tour guide because there are only a few plaques around to explain to us what was what. That night we went to our second ger camp with another nomadic family who was set up at the base of some large mountains to protect them from the wind. This time we went horse riding and we were given the freedom to let our horses get up to a gallop and run free in the open plains of the Mongolian countryside which words can’t even describe the freedom and peacefulness a person can experience in that moment. We ended our night with a traditional Mongolian bbq where they heat rocks in a fire and then place them in a large pot over fire with the meat, so basically the method for cooking is stewing the meat rather than grill.

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Our third day was mostly made up of driving back to UB with a few small stops on the way to see a sharman worship place and our van running out of fuel and then 5 minutes after going again, it broke down but these were all rectified within 30-minutes.

I have spent the last few days not doing a lot however it has been nice to relax before l get on the trans-mongolian tonight and head to Moscow with a few stops in between.

 

Tips:

  • Taxi drivers cannot be negotiated but a form of transport that is acceptable in the city is a form of hitchhiking, where you can wait on the side of the road with your thumb out and a local will most likely pick you up. This is the cheaper form of getting around and you must agree a price before you get in the car.
  • The black market is a lot of fake gear but it all is fine for the temperatures on Mongolia. The shop vendors don’t negotiate too much but do try.
  • The North Korean restaurant is in the EXE building. It is worth visiting, except the prices are a little higher but they also put on a show of singing and dancing for you.