Saturday, December 6, 2008

Mexico: Day 9 - Time to go home

Time to go home and back to the real world! We took the 4:30am bus back to the airport and checked in for our flight. We joined all the other Dallas-bound folks who were chafing against the long-sleeved shirts and long pants they hadn't had to wear while in sunny Cancun.

2 flights and a layover at DFW later, we were back in Seattle where the weather wasn't nearly as warm or sunny as it had been in Mexico. Still, it felt nice to be home and to join the regularly-scheduled American holiday season, already in progress!

Friday, December 5, 2008

Mexico: Day 8 - Back across the peninsula

Today we had the long drive to Cancun ahead of us. Luckily, the two cities are connected by a toll road that makes for easy driving. We did some shopping on the streets of Merida in the morning, grabbed some lunch for the road, and got back in the car. The drive was pretty uneventful, except for when we were stopped by the police after a toll booth. This search was much more thorough than the last, and we had to get out of the car as the officer searched through all of our luggage and the car. Finding nothing of interest, he sent us on our way.

As we got closer to Cancun, Jon and I decided to return the rental car on our way in as opposed to waiting until the next morning. The car agency was going to be closed when we arrived for our flight, and I was a bit nervous about that. Returning it was easy, and we caught a bus to downtown Cancun, as we knew our hotel was right by the bus station. 30 minutes later we were relaxing at our hotel enjoying the last bit of our vacation.

That night, we walked to a nearby restaurant for a nice meal (upscale Mexican, of course). As usual, we were almost the only folks there. It's traditional in Mexico to eat a large meal at lunch, so dinner isn't a popular time to go out to a restaurant. We checked out the Christmas decorations at city hall after dinner and then turned in early at our hotel.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Mexico: Day 7 - Back to Merida via the ruins

We had another ambitious day planned, so we got up and went straight to the city's wall (or at least what's left of it). Apparently, Campeche had a lot of trouble with pirate attacks back in its early days. We were able to get on the wall and walk a short distance to get a great view of the historic central area as well as some of the newer areas on the outskirts.

Our first stop after leaving the city were the ruins at Edzna. Well, our first stop was at a police checkpoint where they checked my driver's license and rental contract! Luckily, there were no complications there, and we soon found ourselves in Edzna. As this site is off the beaten path a bit, it was much less crowded than the other ruins we'd see. Edzna was historically a more agricultural settlement, which was a stark contrast to the mostly military ruins we'd seen before. Jon and I had a good time walking around and climbing on the different structures. Some of the Mayan carvings here had also been preserved, so it was fun to look at those items as well.

As soon as we left the ruins, we were ready for lunch and had a long drive to our next destination. We stopped at the first "restaurant" we saw. Guadeloupe, the owner, offered a choice of 3 different meals. We understood our meat choices to be chicken, steak, or pork, but we had no clue about the preparations she mentioned. We took our chances with the chicken, and it turned out great! It was a very nice meal in a very pleasant setting. Guadeloupe was very friendly, although our communication with her was fairly limited. Still, it was a fun experience and the kind of thing I really enjoy when I travel.

Here's the "closed" sign from the place we ate lunch. Apparently, the kids are none too pleased about the lack of ice cream!

No time for a siesta for us after lunch, though, because we had miles to go before we slept! After a nice drive through the country, we arrived a Uxmal. Unfortunately, we didn't have much time before closing to explore the ruins, but we did manage to see most of the excavated site. Uxmal was more of a social settlement, and it was interesting to compare that to what we'd seen in the agricultural and military ruins. Again, I found myself in awe of the sheer enormity of the stone structures.

Back on the road, it was dark before we got back into Merida. That makes the driving a bit more stressful, but again Jon's excellent directions got us back to our hotel without much trouble. We got settled in our room, this time facing the garden. After being in the car all day, we took a nice walk over to a nearby restaurant. It was upscale, and the food was excellent! The place was decorated in blue and pink, so the decor and the food were both pretty vibrant!

After dinner, we went to go hear a performance of local Yucatacan music. This performance happens every Thursday, and the one we saw was the 2206th performance. Most of the folks in the audience were tourists, and we struck up a conversation with a guy from California who was at the end of a bus tour from Mexico City. He said he'd had a great time and was sad his vacation was coming to an end. The music was great, and they even had some local teens dancing the city's traditional dance.

Here's one of the translated signs from one of the ruins. I'm pretty sure somebody mis-translated the word "alien" in here :)

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Mexico: Day 6 - Celestun and Campeche

We had another long travel day planned, so we got up early and got our "gift" of breakfast at the hotel. Neither of us were able to finish the rather large portions, and as we left we both became concerned that the hotelier would require us to finish what we hadn't eaten when we got back to Merida the next night!

The trip to Celestun took quite a while, and we encountered more topes than we had expected along the way. We even managed to see a crew building a new one! All of the travel was worth it, though, because we took a boat out to see the flamingoes. They were hanging out eating young shrimp and crabs (which is how they get their pink color). We shared a boat with a tourist from France, and the boat driver only spoke Spanish, so we had an interesting time communicating. The tour included a walk through the mangrove trees in the area which gave us a chance to spot some other local wildlife.

Next we headed into town for a nice seafood lunch. Unfortunately, the gas station marked on my map in Celestun didn't really exist, but we had just enough left in the Attitude's tank to reach the next closest one.

We drove down to Campeche and got there just in time to see the great sunset over the water. Afterwards, we walked through the walled city to a restaurant where we enjoyed some Mexican food and watched some children play in the public square. The main plaza was decorated for Christmas, so we stopped on our walk back to the hotel to check it out.

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Mexico: Day 5 - Chichen Itza and Merida

We got to an earlier-than-usual start and said good bye to our hotel in Tulum. We had a lot of driving to do, and I wanted to make sure we minimized the amount of driving after dark. The first leg of the drive was the same road we'd taken to Coba, but after that stretch the road conditions changed dramatically! The road was narrow with many potholes and large buses passing by, but I got behind another car who knew when to swerve to avoid the potholes and slow down for the topes.

In late morning, we reached Chichen Itza. We had beaten most of the tour buses there, so it wasn't too crowded as we admired the large central pyramid and surrounding buildings. Again, the enormity of these buildings is striking: with no CAD software available, the Mayans were able to build all of this and have it last for thousands of years!

We had lunch in the nearby town of Piste and enjoyed some local specialties which were very good. I was surprised as food near large tourist sites doesn't tend to stand out.

We also visited a local cenote (limestone sinkhole).

Then, it was back to the large toll road to Merida: our stop for the night. The drive to our hotel was fairly easy, and the numbered streets made it easy to find.

The B and B we were staying in was quite unusual, and the rooms are all unique with different layouts. We had reserved one of the nicer rooms for the night on the top floor with its own balcony. When we checked it, we were asked to sign a contract promising, among other things, that we wouldn't smoke anywhere in the hotel. One rather peculiar paragraph encouraged us not to think of breakfast as "included" but rather as a gift from the hotel staff that would provide us enough nourishment to have a good start to our day! Jon and I exchanged puzzled looks, but we signed anyway.

It had been a very long day, but we took advantage of the City of Merida's free cultural program after dinner and went to hear a local community band play 1940s Big Band music. The playing was ok, but the real attraction were the folks dancing. Many people were showing off their moves in the town square, and I really enjoyed watching the people dancing and enjoying themselves.

Tired from a long day, we went back to the hotel and turned in for the evening.

Monday, December 1, 2008

Mexico: Day 4 - Tulum Ruins

Another sunny day greeted us as we ate breakfast in the garden of our hotel. On our last full day in Tulum, we visited the Mayan ruins at the other end of town. This was the only site built on the water, and it was definitely set up as a center of defense. A fortified wall surrounds all the important buildings, and there are only 4 entrances to the interior. This site was much more crowded than yesterday's excursion to Coba, but we were able to enjoy the nice view of the water from the high points above the shore.

We spent part of the afternoon searching downtown Tulum for a set of speakers to plug into Jon's Zune. Our rental car radio did not work, and with many kilometers of driving ahead of us, we would need some entertainment. After checking in all the cell phone stores, we finally found one merchant who had a pair of speakers to sell. They weren't great, but they'd do the job.

That night we had drinks at one restaurant and picked up a small dinner at a taco stand we had been trying to eat at during our entire visit. We relaxed at the hotel in the evening, and I finished off the first book I had brought with me. Even though we enjoyed taking it easy in Tulum, we were anxious to get moving and embark on the next leg of our adventure.

Sunday, November 30, 2008

Mexico: Day 3 - Coba

You know you're in vacation mode when you can go to bed early and still manage to sleep in the next day! Breakfast was provided at the hotel, and every day the owners served a different pastry. This first morning we enjoyed croissants along with our fresh fruit and coffee. We climbed into the car and drove the 45 km to nearby Coba for our first set of Mayan ruins. The drive was pretty easy, and I finally figured out my strategy: follow a local! Most of them know where the topes are and when to slow down for them.

More bright sunshine (and sunscreen!) were waiting for us in Coba as we had a great day for exploring the settlement. Because the buildings are all spread out, you can rent bicycles to get to the different groups of structures. We grabbed a couple and set off into the jungle! Most of Coba is still unexcavated, which is amazing to think about. The highlight for me was a pyramid that tourists are still allowed to climb (unlike Chichen Itza), and the view above the treeline at the top is certainly worth the climb!

Afterwards, we headed back to Tulum for lunch. A few times on the trip, I think we were trying to eat while most people were taking a siesta, so our lunch options were sometimes limited. We relaxed the afternoon away at the hotel before heading down to the beach for dinner. We had heard about a restaurant there that was run by two Italian chefs, and the food did not disappoint! Jon had a nice homemade pasta dish, and I enjoyed some red snapper. Drowsy and well-fed, we went back to our hotel for the night.

Saturday, November 29, 2008

Mexico: Day 2 - Cancun to Tulum

Today we took it easy. Our ultimate goal was to drive down to Tulum, but since this was our only real day in Cancun, we headed for the beach! Cancun has a narrow strip of land jutting out towards the Caribbean Sea, and every inch of it is covered with hotels, shops and restaurants. Not being beach people, we wouldn't have chosen to spend our vacation out there, but it was nice to see. It feels a lot like the Vegas strip in this Hotel Zone with all the giant hotels in one place.

We parked the car, put on some sunblock, and ventured over to one of the public beach accesses. It was very warm (probably in the high 80s), so it felt nice to stroll along the beach for a while, checking out the light blue water.

Our drive to Tulum was about 130 km, and the road down the coast was in pretty good condition. We encountered many speed bumps (topes) along the way, as we'd read about before we left. I guess I just wasn't expecting there to be so many of them! After a while, I had decided to count all the ones we went over and then surprise Jon with the number when we returned the rental car. I realized after I got to about 52 on day 2 that I'd rather not think about how many there were and stopped counting :)

We got to Tulum in the afternoon and had lunch at a taco stand along the main drag in town. As we were examining the place, a couple of American vouched for the good food. They were from Anchorage and were spending a week on the beach trying to soak up as much sun as possible. Not a bad idea!

The next stop was our hotel for the next three nights: Don Diego de la Selva. It was just outside of town, so it would be a bit quieter and a nice place to get into the vacation mindset. It is run by people from France, so I was able to speak to the receptionist in French, as I know more of that than I do of Spanish. The room was very nice, and we even had our own hammock out on the porch.

That evening, we walked into town for margaritas at one of the local restaurants. They were very good but probably a little stronger than we had anticipated! We stumbled back to the hotel a short while later and had a great meal at the restaurant there. We read a bit after dinner and settled in for our few days in Tulum.

Friday, November 28, 2008

Mexico: Day 1 - Cancun

Another November: another international adventure! After a great Thanksgiving in Seattle with friends, Jon and I were off again to explore a new place. We woke up on Friday morning to a call from an actual person at American telling us that our first flight from SEA to DFW was delayed, which would mean a missed connection in Dallas. Luckily, American was able to put us on an Alaska Air flight to DFW that would allow us to make our second flight to Cancun. The adventure was on!

7 hours later our plane landed in Cancun. We could feel the warm weather as soon as we stepped off the plane; it was a nice change from the winter we had left behind back in Seattle. We breezed through customs and made our way to pick up our rental car. The process was relatively painless, except for the long sales pitch we got while waiting for our car to be cleaned. Soon, though, we had the keys to our red Dodge Attitude and were off to the city.

We made a few wrong turns on our way into Cancun, but Jon's excellent navigation got us close to our hotel pretty easily. Our guide book had the incorrect location for the hotel, so we spent a little while driving around the neighborhood before finding the place and checking in. After a quick walk to a nice taco dinner, it was time for bed!

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Amsterdam: Day 7 -- Time to hit the road

And so it was time to head back to the US! After a very nice breakfast at the hotel, we made our way back to Centraal Station and took the quick train ride back out to the airport. We made it through security with no problem and took off on our 9 hour flight back to Seattle.

It was a great trip, and Amsterdam was a lovely city to visit!

Monday, April 28, 2008

Amsterdam: Day 6 -- Flower Time!

Today we decided to go see some flowers. The first order of business was catching an early bus to a flower auction in a nearby suburb. It was going to be an hour-long ride, but our bus scraped up against a double-parked delivery truck, so we were forced to go to the next bus stop and await the following bus. Since we'd been in the area the day before, we were able to find the next stop, and about 10 minutes later, we were back on our way!

The flower auction is held in the largest commercial building in the world, so we didn't need to look too hard to determine which bus stop was ours! After going inside, we saw millions of flowers waiting to be purchased and hauled away. I took a video of the action:

In the middle of all of this were several bidding rooms where people were buying all different kinds of flowers. It was very interesting to see how all these flowers get sold!

Back on the road, we took another bus back to a bus terminal where we switched to a bus that was supposed to take us to another bus terminal near the airport. However, this bus stopped just shy of the airport, so we had to hop out and jump on a different bus to take us the rest of the way. Once we got there, we saw the bus we needed to get to the Keukenhof (a large flower exhibition).

Finally, we arrived at the Keukenhof. The flower displays were very nice, and we certainly got a chance to see all the tulips we had been missing during the earlier part of the trip! Not counting kids being dragged there by their parents, I'd say we were the youngest people there by about 30 years! Gangs of wheelchairs clogged most of the pathways as we tried to make our way around.

After seeing our fill of flowers, we took another couple of buses back to the city and walked back to our hotel.

Sunday, April 27, 2008

Amsterdam: Day 5 -- Back to the big city

Today was a leisurely day: we stayed at our hotel in the country until check-out time and enjoyed a nice walk around as well as breakfast on the front terrace.

Taking the bus back to the train station, we arrived and ran up to a train leaving for Amsterdam, but it started moving before we could hop on. Then, the same thing happened with another train! Now out of trains to chase, we had to cool our heels in the station for next train to Amsterdam...which was in about 25 minutes :)

Back in the city, we dropped off our bags at our new hotel along the Singel canal. It was a very nice setting, but our room, number 13, was 4 windy, narrow, and steep flights up from the ground level!

We spent quite a bit of time wandering around the city, this time going down to the Museum park, which was being prepped for Queen's Day.

Saturday, April 26, 2008

Amsterdam: Day 4 -- Off to the countryside

We got up early, bid farewell to the houseboat and took our last ferry ride across to Centraal Station. Out front, we discovered the bike parking garage featured on the last season of The Amazing Race! We purchased tickets for our train ride to Arnhem and enjoyed a smooth one hour trip in a non-smoking car.

From the station, we took a quick 15 minute bus trip up to our hotel, which resembled a country manor house straight out of Wuthering Heights (minus the foggy moors and a sulking Heathcliff). We dropped off our luggage and set off on foot for the Hoge Veluwe National Park. Since it was such a nice day, the 4km walk was a nice stroll. At the gates of the park, we picked up our free white bicycles that are for general use by all park visitors.

It was about a 12km ride to the park's visitor's center where we took a break to grab a snack and check out the park information. Then we went to the art museum located in the middle of the park. There was a very nice sculpture garden, so we strolled around the grounds before heading inside.
There was quite an impressive collection of Van Gogh paintings, as well as other famous artists. Then we hopped back on our bikes for another leisurely ride to the park gates.

That night, we had dinner at the hotel's gourmet restaurant. I had a very tasty duck dish, while Jon opted for the roast beef. Our table at the front of the restaurant had a lovely view to the well-manicured back lawn, and it was nice to be able to sit there as the sun set.

Friday, April 25, 2008

Amsterdam: Day 3 -- Exploring

Today we had a full day in the city. With map in hand, we took the ferry with some local commuters back to Centraal Station and continued south on foot. We ate breakfast from a local coffee shop, and then we were off to the Anne Frank House.

The house looks like any of the million houses lining the canals of Amsterdam, aside from the line of tourists out front. We were told to go early to beat the crowds, but as it's not yet peak season, there wasn't too long of a wait. The house is very well-preserved, and it had some nice exhibits in the front house before you head to the hidden annex. All of them were available in English. Just before entering the secret staircase, there is a model of how the annex would have looked when Anne lived there. I appreciated having this view to get an idea of what I was looking at, but I think I would have preferred to see it at the end after having been in the rooms. Then, we entered the annex. I was shocked at how small all the rooms were, and to think that these people were there for two years constantly trying to be quiet so as to stay alive is a very sobering thought. Beyond the annex there's a video of Mr. Frank talking about the discovery of Anne's diary. The exhibit was done nicely, and the visit was a very moving experience.

In the afternoon, we took a spin through the famous flower market floating along one of the canals. As noted in our guide book, it's not a fantastic attraction, as most of the merchants just sell flower bulbs for you to plant once you get home. Aside from the wooden ones being sold here, we still had yet to spot any tulips (or windmills, for that matter)!

The streets were abuzz with preparation for Queen's Day which would occur the day we left. Everybody buys bright orange clothing and wigs, and there were carnival rides set up in Dam Square.

Then, we decided since we couldn't beat 'em, we'd join 'em! We rented a couple of bicycles from MacBike and hit the streets. Luckily, our guide book provided us with a nice route along the Amstel river. Although we made one wrong turn, the ride was very nice and took us out of the city and into the countryside. We took a quick stop at a windmill south of the city, which was soon mobbed by tour buses. Biking back into the city was fun, but it was rush hour, so the bicycle lanes were a bit crowded!

Here, Jon makes the mistake of forgetting exactly where he parked his bike:

That evening we were back at the houseboat for a relaxing night. I even managed to catch an episode of "Peking Express," which is the Dutch version of The Amazing Race. The show was in Dutch, but the contestants were in India, so they spent a fair amount of the episode communicating with locals in English.

We went to bed early, since we'd be up early on Saturday to catch a train to Arnhem.

Thursday, April 24, 2008

Amsterdam: Day 2 -- Arrival

We landed in Amsterdam at about 7am local time, fresh from the long flight and eager to check out the city. After going through passport control, we bought train tickets at the nearest electronic kiosk and rode the rails to Centraal Station. It was about a 20 minute trip, and the train was not very crowded.

Once on foot, we stored our luggage in a locker at the station and went off exploring. There wasn't much going on at that hour, but it was nice to explore all the canals and dense network of streets with the occasional bicyclist whizzing by!

At around 2pm, we went north to our houseboat. From the back of Centraal Station, we took the first of many free, 5 minute ferry rides to the north part of the city. Once there, we walked down the quiet, more residential streets to our houseboat, number 34N. There, the owner's son met us to show us around the place and the operation of the appliances. While it rained for the rest of the afternoon, we took a nap.

That evening, we wandered around north Amsterdam looking for a decent restaurant, and not finding one, we took the ferry back across for a nice dinner at small "brown cafe", named because their walls are stained from years of tobacco smoke. The meal was nice, although a bit pricey. Afterwards, we took our time strolling back to the houseboat, being careful to watch out for pickpockets!

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Amsterdam: Day 1

Today we left Seattle on our way to Amsterdam. We had a nonstop flight on Northwest, which offered very nice service for the 10 hour trip "across the pond." I worked for part of the morning to ensure I wouldn't fall too far behind at the office during my absence.