Isla Mujeres: Finding Paradise In Mexico


The first mistake I made when I visited Isla Mujeres? I only stayed for a day. That was in 2010, during my first trip to the Yucatan peninsula, when I lived in Playa del Carmen for a month. I fell in love with the little island off the coast of Cancun immediately.

Can you see why?isla mujeres beach mexicoThe second mistake I made? I waited nearly six years to return to Isla Mujeres, even though I was raving about it to everyone who was planning a trip to the Yucatan and asked me for advice on where to go, and despite the fact that I returned to the Yucatan in 2012. It is still beyond me why I didn’t plan in time for a little island getaway back then, but I guess after two months of living on a remote Caribbean beach I wasn’t craving more beach time.dani isla mujeresWhen I planned my Yucatan road trip this year, I made sure that we would spend some time on Isla Mujeres.isla mujeresThere isn’t much to do on this tiny island, which is only 1.3 miles (7 kilometers) long and 2,130 feet (650 meters) wide. As I recall, there weren’t even cars on the island then, only golf carts, but this time around there were a few cars as well. However, golf carts are still definitely outnumbering cars on Isla Mujeres, and most tourists rent those for the day instead of scooters.isla mujeres golf kartI later found out exactly how many vehicles there are on the island: about 130 taxis, 500 golf carts and 1,500 scooters.isla mujeresEven though we wanted to rent a golf cart to whiz around the island, that wasn’t our first priority. Our first priority was this:isla mujeres caribbeanPlaya Norte. This beach on the northern end of Isla Mujeres is one of the most beautiful beaches I’ve ever been to, along with Koh Poda, my Thai paradise island, and Boracay, the paradise I found in the Philippines.isla mujeres loveIt’s one of those beaches where you can just sit and look out at the ocean for hours, without the desire to do anything.isla mujeres shades of blueThe color of the water is what Caribbean dreams are made of!isla mujeres boatI could’ve spent my entire time at this beach, with the occasional swim in the ocean – the water here is so shallow that you can walk for about 160 feet (50 meters) into the ocean and still be only knee deep in the water.isla mujeres caribbean oceanBut we weren’t only here to relax on the beach (even though this was our main reason to visit Isla Mujeres), we also wanted to see the rest of the island.isla mujeres palm treesWe were staying on the far northern tip of Isla Mujeres, where the ferries from Cancun arrive and where you have the biggest congregation of restaurants and small hotels – none of the massive concrete blocks you can see in the far distance in Cancun! – a small village if you want to call it that.isla mujeres housesThe ‘village’ doesn’t even have a name, it is simply known as ‘El Centro’, and Hidalgo Street is the main drag here with plenty of restaurants, souvenir shops and hotels. But all of the restaurants and cafes in neighboring streets can be reached within five minutes from anywhere in ‘El Centro’.isla mujeres housesThe houses here are as colorful as one would expect from a Caribbean island, and there is even some street art!isla mujeres street art mexicoMost of the murals have a deeper meaning: they were painted in 2014 during the Murals For Oceans street art festival in order to promote respect and protection for endangered whale sharks and manta rays, which migrate to Isla Mujeres every year to feast on plankton.Street Art Isla Mujeres MexicoWe balked at the costly price for a 24-hour golf cart rental ($40 – I had paid $7 per day for a rental car in Cancun!) but sucked it up because I wanted to go to the southern part of the island, which is quite the opposite from the northern part with its long sandy stretch of beach and crystal clear water.isla mujeres lizard statueDown there, you find cliffs that tower high above the ocean, which is a deep blue color here. It is a spectacular sight and reminds me of the coast of Ireland – the lush green on top of the cliffs, and the roaring ocean below.isla mujeres dani cliffsOn the southern tip of the island you also find a hint of the origin of the name of the island: Isla Mujeres means Island of Women.isla mujeres statue

The Mayans had a presence on the island and during that time, it was sacred to Ix Chel, the Maya goddess of childbirth and medicine. When the Spanish arrived here in the 16th century and saw all the images of Ix Chel, they named it Island of Women. And on the southern end of the island, you find a statue depicting Ix Chel.

There is also a little sculpture park there, which was free to visit the first time I was on the island, but this time around, they were charging 30 Pesos per person, so we skipped it and cruised around in our golf cart some more, stopping at a little marina with a hotel restaurant for a snack.

isla mujeres punta surWe decided to stop in a little marina along the way for some snacks in a hotel with a restaurant right by the ocean – I had been hoping to find a beach club I had randomly found on my first visit to the island, but sadly I couldn’t remember where it was.
isla mujeres boatsAfter a long day of sightseeing we returned to Playa Norte in time to watch the spectacular sunset – there is no better place on the island to watch the sunset from!isla mujeres sunsetThe sunsets on the island alone are worth an overnight trip, but most people seem to come to Isla Mujeres on a day trip from Cancun, which includes a short stop on the island and several snorkeling stops.Dani 2016 Mexico Isla MujeresI would, however, recommend to spend at least one night here. If you are looking for a Caribbean experience that isn’t pricey (prices in Cancun are en par with US prices for drinks, dinner and entertainment these days!) and easy to get to, Isla Mujeres is the place for you.isla mujeres playa norteI hope that it won’t take me six more years to return to Isla Mujeres, my Mexican paradise…Isla Mujeres Mexico Cancun

How to visit Isla Mujeres

From Cancun, it is super easy to get to Isla Mujeres. I recommend spending a night or two on the island (if not longer) instead of opting for a day trip from Cancun.isla mujeres oceanYou can take a cab straight from the airport, and if you don’t want to wait in line I recommend downloading the EasyTaxi app and ordering a cab via the app. Take the cab to the Gran Puerto ferry port.

If you’re on a budget, take the ADO bus from the airport to Cancun’s central bus station (MXN$66 /US$3.50) and change there into a colectivo (shared minivan) to the ferry terminal in Gran Puerto (two blocks from the older ferry port Puerto Juarez). The colectivos stop right across from the ADO station in front of McDonald’s and cost MXN$8 ($0.45).isla mujeres dani golf kartThe Ultramar ferry from Gran Puerto is MXN$160 (US$8.50) for a round trip or MXN$80 (US$4.25) for a one-way ticket.

The ride takes about 25 minutes. You can check the ferry schedules here, but ferries run several times an hour between 5am and 11.30pm.

Note: Returning to the airport from the ferry terminal, make sure to negotiate the taxi rate before you get in. Taxi drivers will start their negotiations at around MXN$700 (US$37), but I was able to get our driver down to MXN$300 (US$16).

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Where to stay on Isla Mujeres

I’d recommend staying in El Centro – simply because that’s where the best beach (Playa Norte) on the island is, and you have a variety of restaurants and bars to choose from. If you’re staying in another part of the island, you’ll be depending on taxis or renting a golf cart to get around. There are also not a lot of great beaches (only a few small ones, most of which belong to private beach clubs) and the beach is the island’s main draw.isla mujeres playa norteI didn’t find many hotels that I loved on, but saw a great selection of AirBnb apartments, most of which looked better than the hotels. Check out AirBnb rentals on Isla Mujeres here (if you’re not signed up with AirBnb yet, use my referral code and get $30 off your first booking!) Check out hotels on Isla Mujeres on here.isla mujeres jump

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Where to stay in… Playa Del Carmen: The Grand Hyatt Resort

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When I heard that the new Grand Hyatt Resort in Playa del Carmen was awarded with the AAA Four Diamond Award after operating for only eight months (!), I was intrigued. If a hotel receives this honor after such a short time, it had to be exceptional.

The other aspect of the Grand Hyatt that piqued my interest was the fact that it was designed by the acclaimed Mexican architect Sordo Madaleno, and the award-winning New York-based Rockwell Group. I knew I had to check this new resort out for myself during my recent road trip across the Yucatan Peninsula.Grand Hyatt Resort Playa del Carmen

The Grand Entrance

Even just my arrival at the hotel was an impressive experience: We drove up a spacious driveway and at the end of it, we were greeted by a massive fountain, which resembles a Mayan step pyramid.grand hyatt playa del carmen fountain1

The intention to incorporate the local culture and natural beauty of the area  was apparent not only at the entrance, but throughout the entire property – when you access the grand entrance area you immediately see the vast mangrove gardens, which were preserved in the process of building the hotel.grand hyatt playa del carmen mangrove

The rooms are set in U-shaped four-story  blocks that surround the center section  of the hotel. The wide open central section  was designed in a way that offers terrific sea views, and can best be described as a covered walkway (Paseo) where you find the reception, a concierge desk, a coffee shop and a couple of snack bars.grand hyatt playa del carmen1

While the receptionist was checking us in, we were handed two ice cold glasses of champagne – the perfect way to start off our time in such breathtaking surroundings and to relax us after the long day of travel  (which involved a flight from New York and the drive to Playa del Carmen from the airport in Cancun ).grand hyatt champagne

We loaded our bags onto a luggage cart and a porter took them up to our room, leaving us free to continue sipping our champagne. Walking through the long, open corridors on which the rooms are located, we noticed right away the finishes and materials that were thoughtfully sought out for the property: wood, sand colored stone and lots of plants on the open side, always emphasizing the connection with the natural environment.grand hyatt playa views

And then there is the tasteful artwork – I don’t think I have ever been to a hotel with so many carefully selected pieces of art, featuring materials such as  wood and metal. Much of the artwork was created by the artist César López-Negrete, who conceptualized many of his pieces exclusively for the Grand Hyatt. I found myself constantly impressed with the design of the hotel, especially in the mornings, when I walked down to the Paseo. I was stunned by the grand architecture every time.
Grand Hyatt Resort Playa del Carmen art

The Rooms

When we were shown our room, I felt immediately at home: it was elegant and spacious, with  contemporary furniture, sun loungers on the balcony, and a bed that looked so comfortable that I knew right away I’d be able to get a decent night’s sleep.grand hyatt playa del carmen beds

There are 14 different room categories at the Grand Hyatt, ranging from regular ocean view rooms to more luxurious swim-up rooms which have access to a private pool (which is shared with the other swim-up rooms). The rooms with the most stunning vistas are without a doubt the executive suites, which are located on the fifth floor of a bridge that looks right over the translucent waters of the Caribbean sea.grand hyatt playa del carmen infinity pool view

All of the rooms are big enough to feature their own dining area, and come with flat screen TVs, iPod docking areas, coffee machines, and a bathroom that is half open to the room and features large double sinks. I loved the modern yet timeless interior design with a touch of nature thanks to the wooden features that were incorporated.grand hyatt playa del carmen bathroom

A fantastic extra? The mosquito spray that was included in the toiletries (which are organic) since the mosquitos can get annoying, especially after a rainstorm or at dusk and I truly  appreciated the hotel’s thoughtful gesture. Sometimes it’s little things like this that can make a huge difference.grand hyatt playa del carmen toiletries

The Showstopper of the Grand Hyatt

Despite the rooms being so gorgeous, the only time I ended up spending in my room was when I was sleeping, because the real showstopper at the property are the three infinity pools (the Cenote Spa would be a very close second, but more on that later.) I was tempted to extend my stay as soon as I saw the beautifully designed swimming pools and sun loungers, some of which were conveniently placed right in the water.grand hyatt playa del carmen infinity pool1

But I also loved the bigger ‘nests’, which almost felt as if somebody had taken a super comfy canopy bed and placed it by the pool – I didn’t want to leave mine! And the best bit: you don’t really have to. The attentive wait staff serve food and refreshments  right to the sun loungers, so the only thing you need to do is to get up from time to time to enjoy the views from the infinity pool during a quick dip in the water.grand hyatt playa pool area

Guests who prefer the actual beach can lay down on sun beds in the sand, right by the turquoise Caribbean waters Playa is famous for. The Grand Hyatt has a 460 feet /140 meter beachfront, but it doesn’t really matter if you lay out on the beach or in the pool area, because they’re just steps away from one another.grand hyatt playa del carmen beach

The Award-winning Cenote Spa

If laying by the pool is not relaxing enough for you, head straight to the Cenote Spa. I’ve seen quite a few spas and wellness centers  in my life, but I don’t think I’ve ever been as impressed with one as I was with the enormous 6,000ft Cenote Spa.Grand Hyatt Resort Playa del Carmen spa

My first thought on a stroll through the spa was that the spa alone should win a prize for its architecture and interior design, and funnily enough I later learned that the spa did in fact win the Interior Design Best Project Of 2015 award. That’s how stunning the Cenote Spa is – I am afraid the photos can’t even do it justice.grand hyatt playa del carmen cenote spa chairs

The centerpiece of the spa resembles a cenote, a natural underground swimming hole that are unique to the Yucatan peninsula . Inside the igloo-shaped cenote there is a circular pool, which is extraordinary. This place is in fact so breathtaking that couples can book romantic dinners for which tables are set up right by the cenote pool, lit by intimate lights – a wonderful spot for a dinner for two. It is  also a fantastic spot for morning yoga, and luckily for yoga enthusiasts , that is exactly what you can do there.
Grand Hyatt Resort Playa del Carmen Cenote Spa

The spa treatments are designed with the Mexican culture in mind too, with unique treatments such as the Mayan head massage with cocoa and tequila oils. In addition, the Cenote Spa is equipped with a steam room, sauna, cold plunge pools, a Jacuzzi and a lap pool.grand hyatt playa del carmen cenote spa2

I was also happy to discover a bright, airy gym, which is much bigger than most gyms at hotels of a comparable size. The machines and equipment are all brand new, and I have to admit that I needed to use a treadmill after enjoying the decadent breakfast buffet maybe a little too much. Yes, let’s talk about the food:grand hyatt playa del carmen the grill menu1

Food & Drinks

There are three restaurants at the Grand Hyatt – La Cocina, The Grill at 1 26 (referring to the cross streets the hotel is located at – 1 Avenida and 26 Street), and the Raw Seafood Bar. In addition, there is a coffee bar, El Paseo, conveniently located in the covered walkway area. Both La Cocina and The Grill at 1 26 have amazing sea views, bordering the pool area, while the Raw Seafood Bar is located in the center building with a more casual flair.
Grand Hyatt Resort Playa del Carmen Breakfast Buffet

I had dinner at The Grill at 1 26, where you can get some of the best steak and grilled seafood in Playa del Carmen. My travel companion was excited to try a good steak, and I have to admit that I was a bit worried that I wouldn’t find something vegetarian on the menu, but there was nothing to worry about: the restaurant has a special vegetarian menu!

Sadly, I didn’t get to dine at La Cocina, which offers international food and focuses on fresh, local ingredients, but I got to experience the restaurant during breakfast and loved the atmosphere inside as well as out on the terrace, overlooking the beach.grand hyatt playa del carmen the grill margarita

The breakfast buffet was one of the best I have experienced in any hotel, with an extensive selection of European, North American and Mexican dishes. Every single dish I tried was scrumptious, and I couldn’t resist sampling pretty much every single pastry that was on the buffet, simply because they looked so mouthwatering good. And let me tell you: they are worth every single calorie.Grand Hyatt Resort Playa del Carmen Breakfast Buffet

One thing I appreciated about the Grand Hyatt was the fact that the hotel is not, like most resorts of a similar size in Playa del Carmen, an all-inclusive resort, but encourages guests to also go out and sample the many nearby restaurants on 5th Avenue. If you do prefer to eat at the hotel however, you can add on a meal plan to your room – just dinner (US$40, at La Cocina or The Grill); dinner and lunch (US$59) or breakfast, lunch and dinner (US$74).grand hyatt playa del carmen bar

Extra Fun!

Along with everything I have mentioned above, there is also a  coffee shop onsite, so there is really no reason to leave the hotel. And if you are afraid you might get bored: fear not, there is so much to do at the resort, it is impossible to experience even the slightest hint of boredom.grand hyatt playa del carmen restaurant2

Not only is there a movie theater (including a popcorn machine for an endless flow of fresh popcorn!), but there is an entire room dedicated to entertainment. A ping pong table, gaming consoles, table soccer, board games.. you name it, they have it. That would be where I’d be hanging out if I found myself in the Grand Hyatt during the rainy season (that said, I’ve never experienced a lot of rain in Playa, even when I was there during the rainy season… after a shower, the sun usually comes out again quickly). This room is named ‘Teen Arcade’ but judging by my own excitement over this room, I am sure that adults enjoy it just as much.Grand Hyatt Resort Playa del Carmen Entertainment Room

For families traveling with kids, there is a great kids room with plenty of toys – I know that my nieces and nephew would love it there – and experienced staff, so you can also enjoy some kids-free time during your vacation. There is even a children’s dinner on two nights, so that parents can enjoy a romantic dinner for two during their vacation!grand hyatt playa infinity pool dani

If you are looking to get married, the Grand Hyatt Resort can arrange your dream destination wedding right on the beach, and with 314 guest rooms and suites, you can rest assured that all wedding guests can be accommodated.grand hyatt playa sun loungers

Location, Location, Location

Another huge plus factor of the hotel? Its location! Playa del Carmen’s main shopping and entertainment drag, Fifth Avenue (Quinta Avenida), is just two minutes away. Right away you’ll find yourself in the middle of shops, bars and restaurants, and the new Quinta Alegria Shopping Mall is only a five minute walk from the hotel.

Most of the hotel resorts in Playa del Carmen aren’t actually in town, but stretch along the beaches north and south of the center, which means you have to take a taxi every time you want to go into town. I really appreciated that at the Grand Hyatt, you can just walk out of the hotel and are in the middle of it all. And the beach where the hotel is located, Mamita’s Beach, is one of the best beaches in Playa.grand hyatt playa del carmen mamitas beach

The Verdict

So what’s my verdict? The Grand Hyatt Playa Del Carmen gets five Globetrottergirls gold stars! I was trying hard to find something to complain about, or room for improvement, but I honestly couldn’t find anything.

A stylish, elegant hotel with a gorgeous pool area and stunning spa, comfortable rooms, sophisticated restaurants and attentive staff – it’s impossible to leave the Grand Hyatt and not feel refreshed and relaxed, no matter if you’re there for a quick weekend getaway or a week-long holiday. I am already dreaming of a return to this incredible hotel.Grand Hyatt resort Playa Del Carmen pool area


  • Address: 1a Avenida esquina Calle 26 Colonia Centro, Gonzalo Guerrero, 77710 Playa del Carmen
  • Price: Rooms start at $199, suites start at $549 (room rates vary depending on season). Check the Grand Hyatt website for special deals & packages
  • LGBT Friendly: Yes
  • Amenities: Buffet breakfast (at extra cost, if room not booked with a meal plan); three restaurants; three infinity pools, spa & gym, concierge desk, rooms have iPod docking stations, flat screen TVs, tea & coffee making facilities; wedding and events space; parking (at extra cost); kids club; entertainment room with movie theater; beach cabanas
  • Website:

Grand Hyatt Resort Playa del Carmen Mexico

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Life Lately & Upcoming Travels: April 2016 Edition

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In my monthly round-ups, I am looking back at my travels over the past four weeks, what went well and what didn’t, and what’s next for me. April 2016

Where I’ve been

I began April in Mexico City, road tripped around Mexico’s Yucatan peninsula and finished my month-long stay in Mexico on the tiny Caribbean island of Isla Mujeres. After a short stop in New York City (just enough time to say Hi to a dear friend and to stuff my face with a bagel, something I’d been craving for months!) I flew to Tucson, Arizona, where I am ending the month – but I am actually packing up my stuff right now, about to head out on a mini road trip to my next destination, but more on that below.April 2016 Mexico Arizona

What I’ve been up to

This month was supposed to be a relaxing one, at least the second half, but somehow I never slowed down.. Story of my life, I guess. I ended my time in Mexico City with a near disaster (more on that below), but also with a great weekend that involved a return to Frida Kahlo’s house, the Casa Azul, and a fun day in Coyoacan, market madness and lots of craft beer. Then I flew to Cancun where I met up with my favorite travel buddy (again, after traveling together in Colombia a couple of months ago) to road trip around the Yucatan, which just so happens to be one of my favorite parts of Mexico. For eight days, we swam in cenotes (underwater sinkholes), beach hopped along the Caribbean and got our culture fix by visiting several Mayan ruins before a chilled out island getaway in Isla Mujeres. And with that, my 3-month winter escape to Latin America came to an end..MexicoMid-April I found myself in New York for a minute before I jumped on a plane to Tucson for my fifth visit to southern Arizona since 2010. While I usually use these weeks of housesitting to catch up on work, this year it seems like I had much more ‘play time’ than work time.. First, my friend Katie came to visit me and I found myself frolicking around old western towns, hiking in between giant Saguaro cacti, revisiting the beautiful San Xavier del Bac Mission and sampling all the craft beer Tucson has to offer (well maybe not all of it, but quite a lot!) and then I had a surprise visitor distracting me with a visit to a PowWow (get together of Native American communities) in Phoenix and a sweaty canyon hike. Plus, I also finally made an effort to meet some new people in Tucson and caught up with friends I made on previous visits. And just like that, my three weeks here are over.. But I hope this wasn’t my last visit, because the more time I spend in Tucson, the harder I fall for the city, discovering more and more cool stuff.



Road tripping around the Yucatan

I spent hours planning this road trip, but in the end it was so worth all the sleepless nights and the effort that went into it: the road trip couldn’t have gone any better. Beginning with a fabulous stay at the exquisite Grand Hyatt in Playa Del Carmen to accident-free driving to introducing my favorite girl to really good Mexican food, not the stuff you get in the States!yucatan road trip
Desert hikes in southern Arizona

If you’ve been following me for a while, you know how much I love the desertscape of Southern Arizona – and I was happy that I had several visitors who got me out of the house to hike some of my favorite trails here and explore some new ones. Bonus: it’s spring, which means the cacti are blossoming, making the dessert look extra pretty.arizona desert hikes

Returning to Isla Mujeres

I fell in love with Isla Mujeres when I first visited the tiny Caribbean island in 2010, and I decided to spend an entire weekend there after our road trip – even though I had no idea if I’d still like the island after all these years of travel and all the places I’ve seen since then. Moreover, I didn’t know if Isla Mujeres had changed – had it become just as touristy and crowded as Playa del Carmen, a place I used to like a lot but that doesn’t do much for me now? I had nothing to worry about: Isla Mujeres was as charming as ever, and yes, it had become more touristy, but just look at these pictures… what’s not to love?!isla mujeres

What went right

Great publicity

Bild Der FrauThis month was an awesome month for publicity – An article about me appeared in one of Germany’s biggest women’s magazines, and I was featured by Lonely Planet! Being included in a list of the Top 50 Travel Bloggers was another pleasant surprise yesterday.

My first Mexican road trip

As I said above, my Mexican road trip was a blast, but it was also my first time renting a car in Mexico for longer than a day and driving on roads I hadn’t driven on prior to this visit. The only reason I was confident enough to sign up for this trip was because I remembered from living on the Riviera Maya in 2010 and 2012 that driving was a breeze in this part of Mexico, but I was still nervous if everything would go okay with the rental, if the route I had mapped out was too ambitious and if the car would be safe everywhere we parked it (sometimes with all our belongings inside). I am happy to report that everything went smoothly and without a glitch – and this road trip is perfect for anyone who wants to explore the Yucatan, so I’ll be writing about it in more detail soon.Mexico road trip

What went wrong

The almost robbery in Mexico City

My time in Mexico City almost ended with a tragedy – on my very last day in the city my friend and I were strolling through the big Saturday market that sprawls out into the streets surrounding La Merced, the city’s biggest market.

I was happily snapping some pictures and munching on a mango when all of a sudden I felt someone grab me from behind, wrapping his arms around my chest so that I couldn’t move my arms, while a second guy tried to rip my dSLR camera out of my right hand. Luckily I had strapped it around my wrist tightly and he couldn’t just grab it, and I started screaming like crazy. My friend pushed the guy who was holding me, and we both fell to the ground, I was holding my bag and camera tight to my body prepared to defend them, but they decided to run. My friend ran after them, not sure if they’d gotten anything from me or not, and saw them disappear into a courtyard right off the market. Knowing where these thieves lived we decided to get the police involved but they seemed a bit lackluster about the situation. They still came with us to the house, but told us they couldn’t go in without a permit / order.

I can’t believe how lucky I was – this could’ve ended much worse. I had my passport in my bag (required to go inside the National Palace which we had planned for that day), my Kindle, and a chunk of cash. However – I wasn’t entirely lucky during the incident: in the fall, I smashed my camera lens which died a slow death after the incident and had to be replaced, and I hit my big toe so hard that I was sure it was broken.

mexico city merced market dani
This picture was taken minutes before the attack happened…

The credit card scare

At the beginning of the month, I logged into my account to check the balance on my credit card. But what was that? In my ‘Account Summary’, my credit card didn’t show up! Where was my credit card balance?? I looked everywhere in my online banking account, but there was no sign of my credit card. No message either about it being blocked or something. It was midnight in Mexico, so I had to wait until the next morning to call my bank in the UK. Needless to say, I didn’t get much sleep that night. How could my credit card simply disappear from my account?!

When I finally got hold of my bank the next morning, it took an hour on the phone with them to resolve what had happened – the card had been blocked after I the rental car company I rented with try to charge a $2,000 deposit for the car. Yes, these high deposits are customary here in Mexico.. And so my bank put a flag on the account.

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Dealing with British banks makes me want to RUN.

I lost more things… And this time, really expensive things.

The ‘lost items’ section seems to evolve into a running segment in my monthly round-ups, much to my dismay. After losing clothes and my Sennheiser headphones last month, and my Kindle charger as well as camera charger the month before, this month’s loss was very tragic: I left my beloved $300 JBL headphones on the flight from New York to Chicago on my way to Tucson. When I realized what had happened while waiting for my connecting flight, I immediately ran back to the gate I’d arrived on, but I was told nothing had been handed in. Oh well, I guess somebody else is enjoying these amazing headphones now.

And not only did I lose my headphones in transit, I also managed to leave my belt behind in Cancun when I took it off to go through security in the airport. Only on the plane did I notice that I was suddenly belt-less! I really hope May goes by without me losing something.

isla mujeres dani cliffs
If I lose anything next month, I might jump off a cliff

What went almost wrong

The almost missed ferry & almost missed flight

For my last night in Mexico, I had booked a hotel near the airport in Cancun, because we were leaving on a super early flight the next morning. The plan was to spend the entire day on Isla Mujeres and head back to the mainland just to sleep there – why waste a day in Cancun when we can spend it in this island paradise? I had seen online that ferries were running until late at night, which was perfect for us – that way, we could even have dinner on Isla Mujeres!

But when we, happily stuffed with tacos, made our way to the ferry terminal around 8pm, we arrived to complete darkness – the terminal was closed! I panicked immediately, knowing that the first morning ferry wouldn’t run until 5am – too late for us to make it to the airport and to catch our flight. I started to hyperventilate, because neither my friend nor I could miss that flight the next morning. In my head, I already saw us pay for a private boat to the mainland, and ran over to a taxi driver to find out if there might be a car ferry or another way to get off the island that night, and he simply pointed to the ferry terminal next to the one we were at. Yes, this one had closed for the night, but the main one was still open. I almost suffered a heart attack in that near-travel fail, thinking I had screwed up and maybe ferries weren’t going late on Sundays. Luckily, everything went according to plan when we finally boarded the ferry.

isla mujeres sunset - Copy
The sunset was worth missing the ferry for

As if that wasn’t enough, the next morning we then nearly missed our flight even though we were at the airport two hours prior to our flight departure – and just because we were chatting at the gate waiting for the flight to board.. Our conversation was so deep that we forgot to pay attention and somehow missed that everyone had already boarded – they were ready to close the doors! Luckily we noticed that we were the only ones left in the departure area before the plane departed.

What’s next for me

I am finishing up my housesit in Tucson and am almost on my way to the next housesit: a month in Austin, Texas! I’ve been wanting to visit Austin for years, so when this opportunity came my way, I didn’t have to think long.

And because my travel plans aligned with those of a travel buddy I am finding myself now road tripping from Tucson to Austin, stopping along the way at one of the most remarkable places I’ve visited in the US, the stunning white desert of White Sands in New Mexico (which I hope I’ll get to photograph at sunset this time around) and in Big Bend National Park for a day of hiking before eating my way through Austin for the next few weeks. If you know Austin and have recommendations for restaurants, food trucks, craft beer bars and things to do, please share them in the comments!tucson cowboy hatsYou can follow along in real time on Snapchat: mariposa2711

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Polaroid of the week: Island paradise on Isla Mujeres, Mexico

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polaroid of the week mexico 2016 isla mujeresI visited Isla Mujeres in 2010 on a day trip while I was living in Playa del Carmen, and even though it was a (too!) short visit, I was smitten with the tiny Caribbean island immediately. Crystal clear water, powdery sand beaches, palm trees softly swaying in the wind. It was a glorious day. And yet it took me nearly six years to return to Isla Mujeres, the Isle of Women. I decided to spend my last weekend in Mexico on the island, and I don’t think I could’ve chosen a more perfect place to end my Mexico trip with a bang, but it also made saying goodbye even more bittersweet. I know that I’ll be back in Mexico (hopefully rather sooner than later), but I was definitely not ready for this trip to end, especially after our fabulous road trip.

As the last stop for our road trip, the island was perfect! It is tiny enough to be explored in a golf kart in half a day, so we didn’t feel like we missed out on anything when we spent most of the weekend on the beach, sitting in a swing bar with a cool beer or searching for the best palm tree to spread out our beach towels under.

Even though Isla Mujeres isn’t the tiny fishing village it was once, and word has definitely gotten out about this little gem, it is still paradise. The island was much less touristy when I first came here, but being only a short 20-minute boat ride from Cancun, I was surprised that word hadn’t gotten out earlier. And even though we were there over the weekend, it didn’t feel crowded, and none of the spring break crowds that you find in Cancun had made their way over to Isla Mujeres.

Next time I’ll be back for a whole week…

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Polaroid of the week: Mysterious and beautiful – the cenotes of the Yucatan

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polaroid of the week mexico 2016 yucatan cenote jardin del edenWhat a week it’s been – my whirlwind road trip through the Yucatan is coming to an end – how can this even be?! It seems like it was just yesterday that I boarded my plane to Cancun in Mexico City, but looking back at all the places I’ve visited since then, it almost seems too much to fit in one short week!

After so many adventures, which I’ll be sharing in detail with you soon, I am having the hardest time deciding which picture to share with you today! The magnificent pyramid of Chichen Itza? The stunning Mayan temples of Tulum, with the turquoise waters of the Caribbean Sea as a backdrop? Or the jungle ruins of Coba? One of the many beaches I’ve visited in the past seven days? But since I just posted a picture of an ancient pyramid in Mexico and will be posting a picture of one of my favorite beaches in the world next week (so excited about returning to this place – you can get a sneak peek of it in my journey through Mexico picture post from 2010, it’s the second to last place we visited in Mexico back then), I narrowed it down to a cenote – but even that wasn’t easy, considering we visited five different amazing cenotes last week!

If you’ve never been to Mexico, you might not be familiar with cenotes, which are unique to the Yucatan peninsula: there are over 3,000 of them scattered across this part of the country! So what are they? Cenotes are underwater sinkholes, natural swimming holes that were formed by the collapse of porous limestone rock. Some of them are open, framed by the limestone rock, some are closed, only accessible through a small hole in the ground. What all of them have in common? Mineral-rich, fresh water, and incredible underwater rock formations. The water is usually crystal clear, which makes for splendid snorkeling or even diving in the bigger ones, where the small opening often doesn’t even reveal how far underground their cave systems reach. In some cenotes I saw divers appear seemingly out of nowhere; it made me almost want to give diving a try (it’ll happen one day, I guess!).

The word cenote means ‘sacred well’, by the way, and cenotes were used by the Mayans for sacrificial purposes long before we used them to cool off from the hot and humid temperatures of the Yucatan. What makes these swimming holes so special are not just the underwater rock formations and the stunning stalactites in the closed cave-like cenotes,  but also their surroundings – usually lush green jungl-y scenery. Sitting on the edge of the limestone rock looking out over the crystal clear water never ceases to amaze me, no matter how many cenotes I’ve visited.

On this trip, I visited Cenote del Jardin (pictured above), an open cenote south of Playa del Carmen, Cenote Zacil-Ha (also open) near Tulum, el Gran Cenote, which is partially covered and partially open (also near Tulum), and two closed cenotes near Valladolid: Cenote Samula and Cenote Xkeken. You might think one would tire of cenotes after a while, but they are all so different from each other that each and every one is an awe-inspiring experience – at least my fellow globetrottergirl and I were in awe in every single cenote we visited, and we would’ve happily visited more had we not been on such a tight schedule.

Stay tuned for one last dispatch from Mexico next week!

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Polaroid of the week: Frida Kahlo’s Casa Azul in Coyoacan, Mexico

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polaroid of the week mexico 2016 coyoacan mexico cityLast week, I was supposed to take another trip and visit a town I’ve been wanting to visit for a while now – San Miguel de Allende – and an old favorite, Oaxaca.

However, somehow I never made it out of the city. I had too many projects to finish and didn’t want to rush through these places – you know I like to take my time in each place.

And in hindsight, staying in Mexico City was the best thing that could’ve happened to me. Even though I spent weeks here, I only ever felt like I scratched the surface instead of getting a real feel of life in Mexico’s giant capital.

On this past visit, I finally got to know the city like a local, stayed with friends, discovered off-the-beaten-path places, found a local coffee shop for me to work in every day, visited my favorite bakery several times, found a local market I went to for tapas, fresh fruit and vegetables, explored neighborhoods that I didn’t know well before, like Doctores, Roma and La Condesa, let my friends take me to their favorite Cuban bar (the live music was amazing) and checked out a pulqueria popular with Mexicans in their mid-20s that was recommended to us on a night of bar hopping. We also wandered through a couple of flea markets, went to an indoor climbing hall and I continued my quest to try all of Mexico’s craft beers (impossible to try them all, I think – there are so many now!).

Of course I did a little bit of touristing as well: I showed my friend the remarkable murals in the Palacio De Bellas Artes, we listened to the Mariachi bands in Plaza Garibaldi, had coffee and cake with a view on the balcony of the Cafe De La Gran Ciudad, did some museum hopping – I’ve already mentioned that I got a lot of culture in last month and I loved it. And last but not least, we went to Coyoacan, a neighborhood in the south of the city where I visited Frida Kahlo’s house, the Casa Azul, for the second time. I am a huge fan of her art and love everything about her, so I was ecstatic to be able to visit her house for a second time, marvel at her beautiful kitchen, dresses, paintings and her studio.

We also took our time exploring more of Coyoacan, which is one of my favorite neighborhoods in the city, with cobble-stoned tree-lined streets, lovely plazas and parks, a beautiful market and loads of restaurants and bars. After discovering several hipster bars, a great cinema that shows interesting documentaries (and has an outdoor cinema), tasty vegetarian food and beautiful streets with brightly colored houses, I fell in love even more with this neighborhood and entertained the thought of moving here for a longer period.

While I am not sure what the future holds and if I’ll return to Mexico for a few months, there’s no question that I’ll be returning to Mexico D.F. – there is so much more for me to discover in this city that is so vibrant and full of life.

Hasta pronto, Mexico City!

Also check out: 33 Things I Love About Mexico

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Life Lately & Upcoming Travels: March 2016 Edition

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In my monthly round-ups, I am looking back at my travels over the past four weeks, what went well and what didn’t, and what’s next for me. 

Where I’ve been

March was probably the most interesting month of 2016 so far – simply because on 1 March, when I was still in the Colombian Amazon, I had no idea where I’d be now, at the end of the month. So where I am? I am in Mexico City! Yes, this was a completely unexpected turn of events, or change of travel plans. But let’s start at the beginning… A short overview of the places I visited this month: From Leticia in the Amazon I flew to Pereira in the zona cafeteria. From there I moved on to Salento, the heart of the coffee region, hiked in the striking Valle de Cocora, and finally traveled further north to Medellin – which would be my last stop in Colombia… at least for now. I flew to Mexico City, from where I traveled to Poza Rica to visit the El Tajin ruins and from there to Cuetzalan, one of Mexico’s ‘magical villages’. Now I am back in Mexico City for a few days to catch up on work before I go on vacation (well, at least sort of) next week.March colombia mexico

What I’ve been up to

It seems like ages ago that I was leaving the hospital and finished up my time in Colombia’s Amazon region! The beginning of the month was quite tough, to be honest. I flew out of the Amazon into Colombia’s zona cafetera, which saw me travel alone again, quite a change after being surrounded by people for all of February and January. Being sick didn’t really help to get me back into a ‘solo travel mood’, and the cold and rainy days in the coffee region were a huge change from the hot and sticky days in the Amazon where I had to change my shirt twice a day because I was soaked in sweat.March Mexico ColombiaAnd so I found myself booking a flight to Mexico, where I would meet up with several friends. This is not the potential ‘change of plans’ that I briefly mentioned in my last round-up, by the way – that would have been a trip to the Canadian Rockies for a Winter Pride event, and I would’ve returned to New York from there. But I had to cancel the event due to my sickness and kept hearing stories about cold and rainy weather in NYC (even snow had been reported to me!) and I had no desire to return yet. So here I am, spending a month in Mexico.el tajin dancerI sacrificed some of my time in Medellin for this trip, which I had been looking forward to the entire time I was in Colombia, but I made the most of my few days there, and as soon as I took a bite out of my first flor de calabaza quesadilla in Mexico, I had no regrets about leaving Colombia a bit earlier than planned. To be honest, I was getting a bit tired of the food in Colombia and was ready for something new.

Now Mexico is not necessarily new considering that this is my fourth time here, but of course I’m not only revisiting old favorites but also new places. I don’t think I’ll ever tire of Mexico City though – there’s just always something new to discover here, and with a city of the size of Mexico DF (22 million people!) you can never see it all. I’ve spent over a week here again, and found it fascinating to see how the city has changed since my last visit in 2012.Mexico CityMy plans to visit new plans didn’t go as smooth as I would’ve wished for – see below in What went wrong – but I guess it can’t always be just awesome, right? Read on to find out what went well and what went wrong this month, and where I am off to in April… I am stoked for the next month!

March Highlights

A kayak trip on my last day in the Amazon

I was still sick as a dog when I left the Amazon, but after staying in that horrible hospital I wanted to do something awesome before leaving. And so we went for a kayaking trip which was the perfect way to end my time in this incredible region of the world. The massive trees we saw while paddling through mangrove forests, a swim in a lake, monkey spottings and these beautiful surroundings – with nobody but us out on the water – was a memorable experience.kayak trip amazon

Returning to Mexico

I think I’ve already made it clear that I’ve been having a blast since I got back to Mexico! I love that I have the freedom to purchase a plane ticket on a whim, like I did, deciding to come here a mere week before my plane departed. While I spent most of my time in Mexico City, I also got to visit some new places – two UNESCO World Heritage sites, to be precise. In the quaint little town of Cuetzalan I went on an awesome caving tour and got to have a small ancient site with pyramids almost to myself, and in El Tajin I visited the famous Pyramid Of The Niches. Some people find Mexico City overwhelming, but I feel right at home here, and I love the street food, the people, the markets, the weather, and seeing the Jacaranda trees in bloom (the first time I get to see them in bloom here in Mexico!) – plus, I’ve been getting my culture fix this month… see below:
March 2016 Mexico
A month filled with culture

One reason why I’m drawn to big cities? Culture. Sure, I love the beach, and I love being outdoors, hiking in the mountains or through the jungle, but at heart I’m a city girl. Not only do I enjoy all the amenities of a big city (hundreds of food options, movie theaters, events, concerts…) but I need me some culture! Museums, art galleries, or simply urban art in the form of graffiti murals or sculptures – as a creative, I feed off the creativity of talented artists. And this is why March was awesome – I got so much culture in the past four weeks… In Medellin, I got my culture fix with all the Botero sculptures that can be found throughout the city and in the Museo Antioquia (along with his art and other art), visited a fabulous Modern Art Museum, and here in Mexico, it’s been culture non-stop: the amazing museums of Mexico City including yesterday’s Night of the Museums, and my visit to two pre-Columbian ruin sites, El Tajin and Yohualichan. And there’s more to come next month – see Upcoming Travels.Artsy March

What went wrong

Plane to Pereira had to turn around because of a storm

The worst thing that happened this month was my flight from Bogota to Pererira, the second leg of my flight that would bring me from the Amazon to the coffee region. My flight left Bogota at 5pm and was supposed to land in Pereira at 6pm, but while in the air, around 5.45pm, the pilot announced that we might have to return to Bogota due to a massive thunderstorm in Pereira. After circling above the storm for 30 minutes, we indeed turned around and went back to Bogota. While I was still wondering if the airline would put me up in a hotel in Bogota for the night, as soon as we reached the gate, the pilot announced he had been notified the storm had passed and we’d give it another try. So nobody was allowed to leave the plane, they counted all our luggage for security reasons, and about 7.30pm we were supposed to leave. Then there was another inexplicable delay, and in the end it took us until 9pm until we departed again. By then, I was ravenous – I had only had breakfast. The flight attendants only handed out nuts, and that was 4.5 hours after we’d boarded the plane. I finally got to Pereira at around 10pm, and by the time I got to my hostel, it was 10.45pm – no restaurants were open anymore, and I went to bed starving. Considering that I had only left the hospital two days prior to my flight, I wasn’t in the best condition to begin with and sure didn’t need this flight from hell.

colombia plane
Usually I love being on a plane! Window seat, always!

Being sick suuuuucks

When I woke up in Pereira, the first time in weeks that I was completely by myself, still feeling sick as hell, I had only one thought: being sick on the road sucks. Especially if you’re traveling alone and have nobody to go to the pharmacy for you, to get you water or food. Luckily I had someone to look after me in the Amazon.Leticia Hospital

Traveling during Semana Santa

Ah, Latin America’s holiest of all weeks, the week before Easter.. I should have thought about traveling during this time, which is prime travel time, but somehow I forgot about it (again!) and ended up wasting an entire day trying to plan a week of travel during that period. Buses and hostels were completely booked, and if I was lucky enough to find a ticket online, by the time I had gone through the booking process, somebody else had snatched it. It was frustrating, to say the least. Instead of going south, I ended up going to Veracruz for a festival of indigenous culture and dance music, held in an ancient ruin site. See below how that went down…

transport in cuetzalan
Public transportation in Mexico

Rained out festival
El Cumbre, the festival we went to, and paid a considerable amount of money to attend, was completely rained out the day we got there. We were bummed, decided to wait it out for a day and to attend the festival the next day. It still rained on and off, and it was terribly cold. I had stupidly not taken my rain jacket with me, because it had been sunny in Mexico City and I had only used it once on the entire trip. Lesson learned! We tried to make the best of it despite the crappy weather, but it still put a damper on our mood. A good reminder though how lucky I am to be traveling in great weather 95% of the time!

el cumbre 2016 el tajin
Braving rain and mud at El Cumbre

Losing (more) stuff

Only my big $300 headphones left. They’re great for working & blocking out noise, but not for working out..

Somehow I keep losing stuff on this trip.. after my Kindle charger and Canon battery charger (including battery!), and a few other things, this month I lost my favorite (and only!) pajama shorts and top, which I had bought in Bangkok last year. I must have left it in a hotel room, and it really upsets me because they were fitting great and I need to wear something at night when I travel with someone, which I mostly do. And then I lost my beloved Sennheiser in-ear headphones. I’d finally invested in pricey headphones a few months ago, and it didn’t take long for me to lose them – that’s why I usually use cheapie headphones while I travel. Oh well. I replaced them with inexpensive headphones in Colombia which broke after only a couple of weeks, and then replaced those with headphones here in Mexico. And guess what? I’ve already lost them. What the hell is wrong with me?!

Other noteworthy happenings

My first Temazcal

As if one indigenous ceremony wasn’t enough (I’m referring to last month’s… interesting… ayahuasca experience), I experienced my first Temazcal this month, which is an indigenous Mexican steam bath that has been part of the Mesoamerican culture for hundreds of years and involves religious, ritualistic and healing motives. A Temazcal, similar to a sauna done at a very high temperature and prepared with medicinal and aromatic herbs in a small round stone building  usually lasts for about 2 hours and is supposed to help you connect with yourself but also with the fundamental elements of nature. Usually you are guided through the ceremony with songs and prayers, allowing for the purification, inner renewal and healing of the body on an emotional and spiritual level, but my experience was a bit different from what I had read about Temazcales before trying it.

cuetzalan sunrise
The beautiful town of Cuetzalan, where I had my first Temazcal experience
dani temazcal
After the Temazcal

The lady who was guiding us through our Temazcal experience seemed to suffer from the extreme heat much more than we did and was on all four down on the floor for most of the time, and asked us to beat each other with branches of herbs, for an inner cleaning. Afterwards I read that this is called ‘leafing’ and is part of some temazcal experiences (the ceremonies vary), and supposedly means that ‘the bather is gently beaten with the herbal branches’, but trust me, this was no light beating, this felt more like a full-on whipping, and she kept yelling at us to hit each other harder. I had a hard time not laughing out loud during the experience, and I don’t think we were in there for more than thirty minutes (instead of 2 hours) before being massaged by her daughter, whose massage skills were questionable.

I think I might give the Temazcal another try because I usually do enjoy sauna experiences and would like to see how I feel after a properly executed temazcal.

What’s next for me

April is shaping up to be another awesome month – I will fly to Cancun this weekend to meet up with my favorite travel buddy for a road trip in the Yucatan peninsula, which is probably my favorite region in Mexico. We’ll be checking out Mayan ruins, cenotes (underwater sinkholes), Caribbean beaches, snorkel with turtles, visit one of the most picturesque towns I’ve ever been to and finish our trip with a couple of beach days on a gorgeous Caribbean island (can’t tell you yet where because it’s a surprise for her and she might read it, which would spoil the surprise 😉 )MexicoAfter that, I will return to Southern Arizona for my ‘annual desert retreat’, which my trips to Tucson have evolved into, sort of. I am stoked to see my friends there and I will be housesitting there again – but this time, in a different house! But more on that in my next round-up, which will come to you from Arizona.

If you want to follow my travels in real time, add me on Snapchat: mariposa2711

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Polaroid of the week: Exploring ancient pyramids in Mexico

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polaroid of the week mexico 2016 yohualichan pyramidThis week’s Polaroid comes to you from Mexico! Yes, I made an on-a-whim flight purchase a couple of weeks ago and changed my plans rather unexpected… more on the reason behind that in my monthly round-up, but in short, I had the opportunity to meet up wit several friends here which was more enticing than continuing my travels through Colombia solo, and I’m not one to say no to the prospect of Mexican food!

So here I am again, my fourth time in Mexico, a country I love very much and can visit over and over again. Plus: there are still so many places I haven’t been to yet – anything north of Mexico City, for example. And so after a few days in Mexico City, where I felt right at home again, my travel companion and I set off to explore some of the smaller, lesser known archaeological sites in Veracruz and Puebla, two states that are not far from Mexico City. Considering that Latin America is celebrating Semana Santa (Holy Week) at the moment, which is the busiest travel week of the year, I have to admit that these weren’t our first choices for a week of traveling, but beggars can’t be choosers when not planning in advance for such a busy period of travel (no worries, you’ll hear me whine about that in more detail in my March round-up later this week).

But I was excited to see some places off-the-beaten tourist paths, especially knowing that I’ll be braving the crowds in Chichen Itza again when I return there in a couple of weeks. Our first destination was El Tajin, the UNESCO-declared ruins of a pre-Columbian city in the state of Veracruz, which was one of the most significant cities of the classic era in Mesoamerica and peaked after the fall of Teothihuacan. From 600 to 1200 C.E. El Tajin was a prosperous city, and you can see the ruins of several temples, ball courts, palaces and pyramids here. What’s special about El Tajin is that it had more than 20 (!) ball courts for the popular yet brutal Mesoamerican ballgame pitz, and the Pyramid of the Niches, which has 365 symmetrically arranged square niches that create a constantly shifting play of light and shadow when the monument basks in sunshine.

From El Tajin, we headed to Cuetzalan, one of Mexico’s famous pueblos magicos, or magical villages, and also a UNESCO World Heritage site. The pueblos magicos are 54 little Mexican towns that are considered special enough to be called magical and which range from tiny, unknown hamlets to bigger towns like the picture-perfect Valladolid, a place I fell in love with when I traveled around Mexico in 2010 (and which I’m excited to revisit next month!). Cuetzalan did not disappoint, it was a cute little town nestled onto a hilltop in the mountains of Puebla that charmed us with cobble-stone streets, a town square lined with palm trees and an impressive church.

In addition to an adventurous caving tour during which we explored the Grutas de Cuetzalan, we visited another pre-Colombian town, this one much less known than El Tajin, and much smaller, but not less striking (see picture above). We had the site, which consists of several pyramids and a ball court, almost to ourselves, and despite being diminutive, it impressed us with its well-preserved pyramids.

So what’s next for me? A few more weeks in Mexico! More pyramids, a Yucatan road trip, a yet-to-be-decided volcano climb and a few more days in Mexico City where I’d like to check out a few places I haven’t been to yet on previous visits.

If you’d like to follow my travels in real time, add me on Snapchat: mariposa2711

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Our Top 5 Favorite Destinations of 2012

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What a year! we really outdid ourselves in 2012, traveling to India, Singapore, Cambodia, Thailand, Malaysia, the U.S., Mexico, Costa Rica, Buenos Aires and now Santiago de Chile. We are putting together lists of our ‘top five favorites’ to help you with some inspiration for where to go in 2013. Earlier this month we looked back at our favorite beaches of 2012and now our favorite overall destinations of the year. We hope you get some ideas for your own travels. As always, we are happy to answer any questions in the comments about your trip planning for 2013.

5. Arenal, Costa Rica

I thought we knew Costa Rica up and down, except for the Osa Peninsula, which is a truly off-the-grid adventure deserving of its own dedicated trip.  That’s why, after our housesit on a small Costa Rican beach this year, we didn’t plan to travel much. We slipped in a short stint at one of our favorite nearby beaches, Samara, and headed to La Fortuna to see Arenal Volcano, which neither of us had been to yet. In a rare move for Central American travel, we rented a car and drove from the Pacific coast,through national parks and jungles, curved and swiveled around Lake Arenal and arrived in town, thinking the gorgeous ride would be the highlight of our stay. We couldn’t have been more wrong. We love everything about the set up in Arenal. Even though it hasn’t erupted in years, the volcano is an imposing figure you can’t miss from anywhere in town. At a certain point on the road out of town, practically every hotel has hot springs and we spent a day at the best choice of them all, Tabacon Grand Spa. There are massive waterfalls and a full range of day hikes around the volcano, depending on your level of fitness. Restaurants in town are overpriced tourist traps, but we opted to eat in the typical Costa Rican ‘sodas’ which offer great value for money and the healthiest option in town, a vegetarian casado.
Arenal La Fortuna Costa Rica

4. Kampot, Cambodia

This little city is not the first place you’ll hear about in Cambodia – that would be the ancient kingdom of Angkor Wat outside of Siem Reap. You would probably also hear about Phnom Penh, the country’s capital and the beautiful coastline of the Sihanoukville area (which we named one of the Top 5 favorite beaches we visited year). Somewhere further down the list is the sleepy city of Kampot, famous for its production of both salt and pepper. Kampot Pepper is served on the table of the finest restaurants in Paris, we were told on a day tour which brought us out to the salt fields, the pepper fields, a fishing village,and a gorgeous hike in the countryside. Everything in this quiet, riverside town is accessible by bicycle and the restaurant scene is surprisingly developed – we had easily the best coffee of our time in Cambodia right here in Kampot.
Kampot Cambodia

3. Mexico City, Mexico

We have spent quality time in Mexico City before, including two weeks in 2010, but there is a specific reason why it makes our list tin 2012. Mexico City has what only the greatest of all cities have, and that is the ability to be all things to all people and yet completely different with every single visit. We returned to Mexico City in August for a long weekend and managed to pound the pavement for hours on end and not retrace our old stomping grounds and favorite spots from our trip in 2010. We spent one day at an art market in San Angel, another in the suburb of Ciudad Satélite, where we stayed at the beautiful Casa Roa Bed & Breakfast,and another on a walking tour of the San Rafael neighborhood. Two months later, we ended up back in the city during a 12 hour layover, so with limited time we headed straight to the Centro Historico and scarfed down our favorite tacos on Calle Uruguay and hit up Dani’s favorite La Ideal bakery for some fresh pastries. As we walked through the streets back to the modern, efficient airport bus that evening, we couldn’t help but notice the smiles. For being such a big city in a country with such a dangerous reputation, the capital is packed with families, lovers, artists, businessmen and women, police, protestors, market vendors and tourists all going about their days and we loved every chance we had this year of dipping into Mexico City life.
Mexico City

2. Chiang Mai, Thailand

Popular with tourists and expats of all kinds, this northern Thai city has the magical ability to make its visitors adapt to its pace and style, which is a far cry from buzzing, booming Bangkok. Both within the brick square mile of its more touristy city walls and out into the more local neighborhoods, Chiang Mai incorporates all the things we love about Thailand without most of the mess we disliked in the capital and down on some of the overrun islands. For example, the city is practically littered with ornate, peaceful Buddhist temples and monks in their orange robes constantly sweep past on motorbikes and bicycles, in tuk tuks and on foot, always with a smile that feels both insanely exotic and totally normal at the same time. And yet, Chiang Mai is also stocked with modern coffee shops, really fun walking markets, super fast internet, fashionable locals and online entrepreneeurs from all walks of life. Most of all, we ate like Kings in Chiang Mai. Organic, healthy food at under $4 a meal, fruit smoothies for under a dollar…yes, we most definitely miss Chiang Mai…
Chiang Mai Thailand

1. Buenos Aires, Argentina

Buenos Aires takes the top spot by a landslide, miles beyond anywhere else we visited this year. If you remember, I wasn’t even that impressed with the city when we landed there in November, as it reminded me of anywhere I’d already loved in Europe – Lisbon, Barcelona, Paris. So, it may have taken a little while for Buenos Aires to win us over. It didn’t do so overwhelmingly, or all at once. Instead, it seeped in slowly…the romance, the food, the culture, the architecture, the street art, the hot-blooded protestors, the complicated history and complex politics of ‘isms’ and ‘ists’, the dinners at 11pm, even (and I swore I wouldn’t say this, but I am) the accent that makes ‘playa’ into ‘plaisha’, the rolling Italian speech rythyms and the hand gestures to match. The city isn’t perfect, with garbage on the streets, corrupt politicians, and rates of inflation we’ll never understand, but that only adds to the intrigue. Loving Buenos Aires was unexpected, but knowing it exists settles our wandering souls just a bit. Buenos Aires is our number one pick because it is the only place we say that you really have to go, a place where you could spend a year and not scratch the surface. It is definitely the city we visited in 2012 we could see ourselves returning to multiple times throughout our lives.
buenos aires argentina

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Our Top 5 Favorite Beaches of 2012

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This year will go down in history as the year of the beach for the two of us!

All those days in the office before we started traveling long-term, our thoughts would drift to what it would be like to live on the beach and wake up to the crashing of waves on the shore, the sound of seagulls and being barefoot through the sand. Well in 2012 we certainly got our wish in a year that saw us living over five months on the beach. We spend longer stints in Mexico and Costa Rica, and took trips to the sandy shores of Singapore, Malaysia, India and our number one spot that often gets overlooked by its famous neighbor Thailand.

Read on for our five favorite beach experiences of 2012:

5. Varkala, India

While we didn’t see what all the hype was about on the beaches of Goa and Kerala, we did fall for the cliffs of Varkala, about an hour north of Trivandrum in the far south of India. What the laid-back village lacks in culture is easily made up for by walking the paths along the gorgeous cliffs, looking out over the wide beaches below. There are plenty of hotels and restaurants for every traveler’s budget, and the sunsets here were breathtaking.

Varkala Beach India4. Samara, Costa Rica

Long-time readers will know that Samara has been a favorite beach of ours since we first ended up there on whim back in 2011. This October we were lucky enough to return for a few days and were excited to find that this Costa Rican beach hasn’t lost any of its charm. Although the waves of  Samara are perfect for newbie surfers, the long stretch of sandy beach feels empty even in the high season, with restaurants and hotels well hidden behind the palm trees that line the shore. In a country so popular with international tourists, Samara is one of the few secret spots that combines a great selection of accommodation and relatively few tourists.

Samara Beach Costa Rica3. Langkawi, Malaysia

We had never even heard of Langkawi, an island off the Malaysian coast in the Andaman Sea, but somehow we found ourselves promising a Canadian expat we would go there when she so passionately insisted we visit the favorite part of her adopted country. We ended up spending a week there, and Cenang Beach was by far our favorite beach on the island. Powdery, soft white sand, clear and shallow water, palm trees and incredible sunsets. This is really the perfect vacation island for travelers from near and far.

Langkawi Malaysia2. Mahahual, Mexico

Odds are, you have never heard of Mahahual, unless maybe you have taken a short Caribbean cruise. A popular cruise port once or twice a week in high season, Mahahual is otherwise a small, relaxed fishing town on the Yucatan peninsula with incredibly warm, turquoise water. This was the closest place from the remote beach house we housesat this past summer, and we found every excuse to make the trip. Making sure not to be there on ‘cruise ship day’ we would lay in the rows of empty sun chairs lined up along the beach, working on our tans and sipping cool Mexican beer. Heaven on Earth!

Mahahual Mexico1. Otres Beach and Koh Rong, Cambodia

Cambodia takes the crown for our favorite beach in 2012! There are actually TWO beaches here that tie for first: Otres Beach, on the mainland, and Long Beach on the little known island of Koh Rong. Just a quick tuk-tuk ride from the popular beach town of Sihanoukville, a trip to Otres Beach means avoiding the touts selling tourist trinkets, and focusing on what is important: relaxing in your sun chair with a cool coconut, staring out at sea. The few restaurants and bars here are of better quality than in town and somehow it feels like the sunsets are, too!

Otres Beach Sihanoukville CambodiaFor those of you who are serious about your deserted beaches, Koh Rong’s Long Beach was an amazing experience. The small island two hours off the coast of Sihanoukville only has a handful of guest houses and not much to offer in the way of diversion, but with the seven mile stretch of crystal clear water on the other side of the island, we could have cared less. We were particularly unimpressed with the side of the island where the port is and even considered leaving a day early, until we were told about a path that leads over to the other side of the island. It is an hour-long hike across an entirely untamed islands, which included much tripping, a bit of falling, profuse sweating, more swearing and a 75m descent straight down by clinging to a rope that mysteriously appears the minute you need it to finish the way down. Walking out into the clearest water we have ever seen, however, made the hike entirely worth it. Of course, we found out later you can rent a boat, round-trip, for $25 to take you and ten of your closest friends from the port on a 15-minute ride around to the otherwise deserted Long Beach. But we preferred working hard to reach our absolute favorite beach of 2012!

Koh Rong CambodiaNow we want to know from you – what is the best beach you visited in 2012? Better yet where is your favorite beach in the world?

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