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Yucatan Adventures at Quintana Roo, Mexico

Cancun - Valladolid - Playa del Carmen - Puerto Morelos - Cancun

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Feb. is the best time for me to visit Mexico. Due to the back to back President's Day and Lincoln's Bday holiday, I was able to take off for the whole week using only 3 vacation days. On top of that, Cancun vacation packages are cheap! We booked flight and 3-nights through Expedia (total= $450/person). The other 3-nights of our stay were all walk-ins and although this month is supposedly peak season, finding bargain hotels was not a problem. We stayed at St. Clemente ($42/night) at Valladolid, which is right across the plaza! Then, at Playa del Carmen, we stayed at a Mar de Caribe ($35/night), which is couple of blocks from the shops, pier, and the beach! So, if you're traveling there on winter time, maybe you can just book your first night and book the other hotel nights as you go. You have a better chance of finding bargains stays with the help of a good travel book.

Direct flight will take you to Cancun in about 6 hrs but since we were on a budget, our flight was 9 hrs to and 12 hrs from Cancun. You can also fly to Meridia, which I heard is a beautiful city and then, maybe depart from Cancun back to US so you can travel across Quintana Roo (the name of the state, take note on your customs form). Renting a car is probably not a good idea because the toll fees are expensive and there are many toll areas, too. Gas may not be that expensive (about $1 per Liter) but rental + insurance are kind of costly. There's also the risk of having your windows break into and get your stuff stolen when unattended, if you're not careful. Taking the local bus is easier, cheap, and you get to sleep/rest along the way with a good A/C and brush up on your Spanish by watching some TV, too. We took the bus from Cancun airport to downtown, checked-in to our hotel, ate at the local plaza then, head out to Zona Hotelera. The R-1 bus takes you between downtown and Zona Hotelera. Make sure you ask the driver which way it's going because you might get into the bus that's heading back. Due to the past hurricanes that hit the island, the beachfront is not as great in some of the resorts. The hotel-resort lobbies are amazing and some even have really sophisticated and artistic designs, like Aqua. The top resorts, like Riu, have a lot of activities to offer like numerous endless pools, volleyball courts, huge JENGA, bars with underwater seating, some have hammocks and canopy beds - all by the beach area. The sands are really fine and white at Riu beachfront. Keep in mind that during winter, sun sets early and depending on which part of the island you're in, you'll probably start feeling the cold wind and the start losing the sun to the shade around 5PM. So, start hitting the beach early on winter. It's a great time to visit for those people who don't like extreme heat or humidity. As far as food, I'm not really into goat cheese and the local delicacies. Thank God that a lot of the restaurants cater to what non-locals look for as far as taste and variety and the price is not that bad either. It's anywhere from $4 to $8 and can be as expensive as $30 (for a really great dish). The exchange rate was $1 to ~ 10.45 pesos. The peso sign looks almost similar to a dollar sign that it confuses me at first. I took out some money from my CITI account from a Banamex ATM, which takes CITI card. The bank charged me 2% of what I take out (e.g.: $1.5 fee for $75) so it's not that bad, better than what they charge you here in US. The exchange is better from ATM withdrawal but with the 2% fee, the street rate comes to about the same.

The 2nd day, we visited Chichen Itza ($10/person). You don't really need to get a tour guide, which is more expensive. You can just get a good book that can guide you through the park and there are also infomation you can read in front of each ruin. The El Castillo, the group of thousand columns, and the ball court are my favorites and they're really marvelous. No wonder this place was named as one of the seven great wonders of the modern world. The more you learn about the Mayan culture the more your heart goes out to those who were sacrificed in that place. There was a cenote at one end of the park where one can see children and women's skulls if you swim under the water, which I don't think any one will. The water looks stagnant to start with. All these send chills down my spine when I use too much of my imagination. If you're planning to get souvenirs, BUY it from the local artisans that are selling their crafts INSIDE Chichen Itza. I had a hard time finding $1 souvenirs elsewhere. I was able to get couple of $1 souvenirs here (make sure you haggle) but I wish I bought more! I just didn't want to carry a lot of stuff with me while traveling.

The last bus to Valladolid from Chichen Itza is at 430PM so, we started heading out of the park around 4PM. We spent the night there and got some good grubs at Squimoz (next to the bus station). The locals at Valladolid have really round face and round eyes, very unique. There were a lot of women wearing an embroidered white dress, which I was planning to buy for my mom but forgot :( The next day, we rented a bike (8 pesos, ~$1 /hr) to check out Cenote Dzinup/Xkeken ($2.5/person). It was great! Lots of fishes (mostly black), stalagmites, and the water was not cold once you get in. We saw part of the cave and decided not to venture far since there's nobody around. Swimming to the darker corners to touch the stalagmites is a little creepy when there's not a lot of people around. Specially, after finding a school of dark fishes, which first looks like a moving dark hole under the clear water. And you think, having the place all to yourself is a great idea - not! People usually take a siesta around 1PM to 2PM so, it's hard to find an open restaurant or panaderia. That's usually a great time to take the bus to your next destination, in our case - Playa del Carmen. On the way to Playa del Carmen, we passed by Coba, Tulum, and some of the resorts that line up the Riviera Maya. Tulum have a great Mayan ruin right by the beach and a little touristy just like Playa del Carmen. In the afternoon, a lot of the locals who just got off work from the resorts take the bus home so, it's interesting to just watch them hop in and out of the bus.

Playa del Carmen have the best touristy area by the beach. The streets, shops, and restaurants are usually packed with tourists. The next day, we took the ferry to Cozumel ($11/person). They have the best pasteleria, Zermatt, and we bought a lot of pastries that lasted us the whole day. We rented a scooter ($20/day), which we rode across the accessible half of the island. We stopped by a beach club where we climbed this floating iceberg-like dome and slide down its side. It's pretty high and I was a little afraid of losing my grip and having a bad fall back to the salty sea water. They also have two trampolines that have a slippery bridge that you can cross. It was a great, lively beach area. We found an iguana sun bathing on the way to a restaurant but decided not to disturb him. I was able to find a bargain and paid $20 for a $35 hammock at a shop across Sr. Iguana's before heading back to the pier. Thank God we have a basket in the scooter to carry our stuff. Most of the shops at Cozumel are great too but pricey so always ask for at least half off the price they're asking.

If you're carrying a lot of stuff, you can rent a locker (pretty spacious) back at the pier at Playa del Carmen, which is a little pricey ($10/day) or walk down to the bus station, which is close by and rent their locker instead ($5/day). We have to check out by noon at Mar de Caribe so, we put our backpacks and my bag of laundry at one of the $5/day lockers they have at the bus station. They open at 10AM and they give you a token, which means that once you close it, you can't open it again unless it's time for you to take your stuff out. Else, you need to pay again. Then, we took a bus to Puerto Morelos (~ 30 mins. north of Playa del Carmen), shared a cab (paid a $1 ) to the town from the highway, and paid $25/person for a 2-hr snorkling that includes equipment, park fee, and a boat that takes you to the coral reefs. The reefs are well-preserved and well-taken care of. The fishes have are sooo colorful and each of them have their own character and personality. There are a lot of schools of fishes that ride the waves and they're just fun to see! The last part of the trip was to check out an underwater cenote or sinkhole. It looks okay but I don't think I'll go in there. Maybe that's where the aliens hide* Puerto Morelos also have the best empanadas at Los Gauchos and horchatas we've ever tried. The local artisan shops are also great and it's right around the corner and near the town plaza. We took a cab ($5) to Croco Cun Zoo ($20/person) where you have a tour guide that lets you hold a small crocodile, a snake, iguana, and get a kiss from parrot. You also get to feed some deers and wild monkeys (Ebola Alert!). I wasn't able to spend more time observing the crocodiles but it was fun! We have to take a local bus back to Playa del Carmen and the bus was kind of old to be speeding through the freeway and doing sharp turns but we got back in one piece!

After we took our stuff from the locker, we hop in to another bus back to Cancun, where we spent our last day hotel-hoping, checking out flea markets (Coral Negro) and other shops. We attended a local mass at Cristo El Rey, right across the downtown plaza, and I had a big headache trying to understand with my limited Spanish. One of my goals is to at least learn the Spanish prayer, "Our Father". The plaza was a great place to be, specially on Sundays, where locals hang out and watch shows or just chill and let their kids loose. I wish our parks and open areas here in US can be as nice and filled with people like their plaza. Overall, it was a great trip! If you feel like checking out a well-put together adventure tour, you can check out the Xcaret or Xe'hal tour packages they offer almost anywhere. They're both huge resorts that offers various activities like Jungle Tours, Cultural Shows, snorkling, swimming with the dolphins, visiting Mayan ruins, and petting some exotic animals.

Posted by jptablante 13:34 Archived in Mexico Tagged tips_and_tricks Comments (0)

Camping and Hiking at the Grand Canyon

Las Vegas - Skywalk at West Grand Canyon - South Grand Canyon - Nevada, CA

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October is a great time to visit Las Vegas and the Grand Canyon. The weather is perfect - not too hot nor cold. We flew to Las Vegas through Southwest ($100 round trip, about an hour flight each way) to watch Barrera VS Pacquiao boxing match. We didn't see the live fight but watched some of it on TV at a hotel. The first thing we did after we landed that Saturday morning was to get on the Manhattan rollercoaster at New York New York because they're only open until noon on Saturdays. It was great! It was $12/ride but I printed a $4 off coupon I found in an internet site and it was worth it. The ride was long enough and had at least two loops and couple of drops. I liked it a LOT! The rides at the Stratosphere's (X Scream and couple of others) are kind of expensive for me plus you have to pay to get up the tower, where they have the rides. We were able to get up the Stratosphere tower once when we were in Vegas for a wedding because we got a free coupon for entry to the tower for staying at Stratosphere. We were tired from hotel-hoping along the strip the whole day - checking out shops and free shows. Check out more of the pictures I've taken at my website, http://www.friendster.com/jocelyn1979. We spent sometime watching the Bellagio's water show, the top-of-the-hour show at Caesar's palace, checking out the scenes at GameWorks, the new Wynn hotel, Madame Toussand's wax museum, ate at the Rainforest and got some drinks at Fat Tuesdays, etc. At night, there's the Excalibur's outdoor Pirate show. I was hoping we'll get to check out 55th floor's Ghostbar at Palms hotel and see Las Vegas' panoramic view at night but, we didn't have the time. The girls at Coyote Ugly @ NY NY are hot, hot hot! We were able to dance and get some grooves on at a bar in Mandalay Bay.

The next day, we stopped by Hoover Dam on our way to West of Grand Canyon (~3 hrs drive). There's a 14-mile dirt road that we had to drive to get to Skywalk. We paid $75 for the tour package which includes walking the Skywalk (no cameras allowed), ranch tour, and a traditional meal. I think it's expensive and you can definitely skip the Skywalk. Instead, spend more time at Guano Point and hike there. It has a magnificent view compared to Skywalk. South Rim was ~ 5 hrs from West GC. We campled at Angel's Bright campground and hiked the Angel's Bright trail the following day. Unfortunately, we were not able to secure the campsite nor get a backcountry permit to camp on one of the campsites near the Colorado River so we have to do a roundtrip that same day. It was hard when you can't take as much time to rest since we started out late and our goal was to get back up the trail before sun down. It was a great hike though. We had a good view of the Colorado river at Plateau Point and experience the view from the different parts of the Canyon along the trail.

Posted by jptablante 14:04 Archived in USA Comments (0)

Philippines Vacation

There's no place like home.

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I grew up in the Philippines. My mom and I moved in US in November 1994. After 12 years, we decided to visit the Philippines to help my brother Dennis with the immigration process. During this time, I took every opportunity I get to reunite with high school friends and relatives from the city and the provinces. It's a great feeling to be back home and reminisce the old days. I was surprised that although there had been a lot of changes, I can still remember how things used to be. I was able to commute on my own and go to places I've been before - the markets in Libertad and Cartimar, the shopping malls of Glorietta, Shoemart, Rustans, and GreenHills. My friends took me to Timog and as a birthday treat, I brought them to a strip bar just for fun. We spent most of the nightlife in Malate and Baywalk, watching live band and stand-up comedian / drag queen shows. I spent the following week in Baguio with Eleanor and her co-workers. I got sick (some kind of diarrhea) on the way to Baguio from a Siopao (pork bun) that I bought in the bus terminal. It was a red-eye trip and I think that the constant sleeping and napping helped my body fight back whatever bug it was that made me sick. I'm just glad that I'm fresh and well when we meet up with Eleanor's friends and co-workers that morning. We visited several tourist spots of Baguio. We went boating at Burnham Park, visited Wright Park, the Mansion, House by the Ruins, Baguio Cathedral, the new SM mall, went shopping for wood crafts and other souvenirs at the market, watched some Ifugaos take pictures with tourists, visited and bought local delicacies (purple yam, peanut brittle, etc) and enjoyed the view from Good Shepherd, and we also dropped by a strawberry farm to pick some delicious, fresh strawberrie. This is where I first tried a different type of tamarind sweets called "sundot kulangot", which translates to "peek-a-booger". A small ball of tamarind is rolled inside a small, rounded husk. It sounds really funny and disgusting but it actually tastes great! At the end of the day, we spent the night at a really nice resort. The place is very spacious and clean. At night, it's pitch dark and everyone is having fun scaring each other and talking each other into taking a walk in the dark for some "ghost-hunting". The break of dawn is really beautiful in Baguio. We had breakfast in the balcony while enjoying the scent of the pines and the first rays of the morning sun. I love these secluded part of Baguio and it's sad how this beautiful place is becoming heavily populated. On the way back to Manila, I saw several waterfalls and hanging bridges and if I was driving my own car, I would have stopped at each one of those places. I really want to cross those long hanging-bridges and see what it's like to be suspended hundred of feet up the ground. I can't sleep on the way back. I was so entertained by the green farms, humble houses and nipas, local scenes, and the unique wood crafts (especially when we pass La Union) along the way.
I visited Laguna couple of times. One time, my mom, kuya Dennis, and I went to the Japanese Garden near Caliraya Lake and the morning there was beautiful. It's a really peaceful place where you can see Koi swimming in the ponds, Cherry blossoms blooming, and see the Japanese monuments and cemetery. The view of Laguna Bay from there was breath-taking as well. Then, we went further up the mountain to visit some relatives. There are a lot of beautiful resorts, such as Lagos, that surrounds the beautiful lake of Caliraya. Afterwards, we passed by Paete to see the artisans and their famous wood crafts. It's amazing to see them at work and see how a piece of wood transforms into a piece of art. There are small ones and huge, heavy masterpieces. I especially liked the one where a little boy is sitting in a carabao with a little bird and a small book. It's about my height and probably weigh a ton.
Our town of Lumban, Laguna (where I was born) is known for weaving pina or embroidery and for having a lot of fiesta! I took Eleanor to Laguna with me to experience the Pagsanjan Falls and to join the San Juan Bautista fiesta or "Lupe". It's an endless water-splashing fiesta and parades and you definitely shouldn't have any electronics with you unless you have them covered with plastic. We got there really early in the morning and you can already hear and see the fat pigs squeeling. They love to cook roasted pig or "Lechon" during Fiesta. Everyone is up and cooking as early as 3 AM. We stroll around the town and visited relatives. There were tons of food and lots of things to see. At night, we hang out to watch a play at the plaza and it's really nice to just sit there and watch people. The next day, we took a boat ride to Pagsanjan Falls. The rapids are rocky and wild. It's amazing how the boatsmen or "bangkeros" pull us through the rough water. The Pagsanjan Falls is as magnificent as I've expected and more. I took a dip in the water under the falls and I got some bug bites after so in the future, I don't recommend swimming there because the water seems to be a little dirty. Just sit back and enjoy the roar of the powerful Pagsanjan Falls.
We also went to Tagaytay. We took a bus across the Baclaran Church along Roxas Boulevard to get to Tagaytay. It’s not that far from Manila and without traffic, you can probably get there in less than an hour. Once you get off the bus, there’s a jeepney there that can take you down to one of the Taal Lake resorts where you can order food and eat after your return from the Taal Volcano. They also have the boat ready for you to hop on to get to the island. Once you’re in the island you can rent a horse for 1000 pesos (~ $20) to take you to the crater. The horseback riding in this island is rough and dusty so, make sure you have a mask. Also, there are narrow roads and when there are a lot of tourists, those narrow spots can be so packed and tight. You can feel the other horses against your leg and it gets scary. It can be fun and such a great adventure as well. Once you’re up there, all you need to do is to climb up some stairs to the viewing point where you will be directly above the Taal Volcano’s biggest crater. The volcano has three craters but only two of them are above the water. You can see the bubble formation change every now and then and it gets really hot up there. You can definitely hike down to the water of the crater but you should do that really early in the morning when it’s still cool and the sun is not as high up. I was told that the water is also high in sulfur so, it’s probably not that great for your skin.
For my next visit, I am planning to visit the Visayan region of Cebu, see the Tarzier (smallest monkey) in Bohol, and have an adventure in Palawan. I heard that the rice terraces of Banaue and their caverns are also a must-see. Also, medical tourism is becoming a hit these days because of expensive and not-so-great health care in US and other industrialized countries. So, if you're thinking of getting a cosmetic surgery, dental work, or some other expensive medical procedure, you might want to check out the prices and reviews from medical tourism programs in the Philipines. The price of your roundtrip ticket (~ $1000) is probably just a fraction of what you will save for getting it done there instead. Also, on top of that, you get to enjoy a nice tropical vacation while recovering and get a chance to travel the exotic islands of the Philippines and meet new friends!

Posted by jptablante 16:44 Archived in Philippines Comments (0)

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