Archive for December, 2013

November Holiday Pt. 3: Mexico (14 – 23 November)

Monday, December 9th, 2013

Since our rate of visiting new countries had significantly dropped since we started working again, we concluded that on our November trip we needed to visit a country that neither of us had been to before. Also, since it was going to be my birthday on the last day of our trip, I requested something warm with a beach for that – so we ended up going to the Yucatan peninsula in Mexico.

We flew in to Cancun, but fearing hordes of drunk American teenagers, we didn’t spend any time there other than one night in downtown Cancun close to the bus station. That area is completely untouristy, so that when we wanted to get some tacos for breakfast, our non-existing Spanish was already quite extensively tested… but with pointing and analogies from other Latin languages, we did end up getting some nice and really cheap food.

Our first “real” stop then was Chichén Itza, the Mayan ruins of which have been named one of the “new seven wonders of the world”. We arrived there in the afternoon, and hadn’t planned to go into the archeological zone that day yet, so instead we hunted down something to eat. Most of the places in Piste, which is the small town closest to the ruins, are really touristy and mostly cater for big tour groups. We were still very early and thus got some food alone in a pretty big restaurant. When we were about to leave, it started pouring, so we had to stay somewhat longer, and witnessed the big tour groups arriving (and a dance performance for them by the restaurant staff). Thankfully, the rain didn’t last very long and we were able to take a taxi to our hotel. The hotel was located at the back entrance of the ruins, and was a really nice place – and also very convenient to be the first one at the ruins in the morning (at 8am). Getting up relatively early then clearly showed the difference between Mexico and the places we’ve traveled to in Asia with similar tropical climate: Whereas in Asia everyone is up early to avoid the heat, in Mexico there was hardly anyone out on the streets even at 8am. For us, that was a good thing: Not only were there only very few other tourists with us in the ruins, but also hardly any vendors, and those that were there, were still busy setting up their stalls. So less harassment for us.

The ruins were quite impressive. The first eye catcher was of course the big pyramid in the center, but other sites that I found very memorable were the big ball court, with rings that players were meant to somehow put the ball through probably four meters above ground, and the platform of skulls which was decorated on all sides with hundreds of skulls carved out of the stones.

We spent a couple of hours at the ruins, and left just before the first tour groups arrived. We had some time to freshen up and pack our stuff, before we left in the afternoon for Tulum.

We spent the night in Tulum and got up relatively early again the next day to be at the Tulum ruins when they opened. The ruins here were Mayan too, but quite different – whereas the ones in Chichén Itza are basically enclosed by thick jungle, the ones in Tulum are located on a cliff over the ocean and surrounded by city walls on three sides. The individual buildings in Tulum are not as impressive as in Chichén Itza, but the location even more so – palm trees, cliffs, small beaches, and turquoise Caribbean water. It must have been good to live here as a Mayan (except for the ever-present risk of being sacrificed, which seems to have been quite the hobby of the Mayans).

Since it was still early when we got back from the ruins, and we weren’t planning to leave Tulum until the afternoon, we decided to go swim in a cenote. These cenotes are round holes in the limestone ground which are partly filled with water and often connect to systems of caves. We went to the Grand Cenote close to Tulum for a swim – you can also dive down the caves if you want to. The water was quite cold, but you got used to it after a while, and there were fishes and turtles swimming alongside the bathers and divers.

Later that day, we left for the island of Cozumel. We had to get off the bus and board a ferry in Playa del Carmen for that purpose, and were glad that Playa was one of the places that we hadn’t put on our itinerary — this town again seemed to be more of a place to be drunk on the beach than anything else. Cozumel itself has a little bit of a schizophrenic character: Since on any given day, 3 or 4 cruise ships dock here, it becomes quite busy during the day with lots of tourist traps (one jewellery store next to the other on the water front). Overnight, when the ships are gone, it is much more quiet. However, our main plan on Cozumel was not checking out the island itself, but rather to go diving – J did her Open Water Diver certificate, and I just went diving for three days (the last day we could go together). The coral reef around Cozumel is actually the second biggest after the Great Barrier Reef, and the diving was really amazing. The corals were extremely pretty and had very interesting shapes, and we got to do a lot of swim-throughs, were you dive through arches or tunnels in the coral. Also, I went much deeper than I had before, up to 30m. There was lots of marine life to see as well, including as the highlight a nurse shark that was sleeping on the ocean floor.

After three days on Cozumel, we left for our last stop – Isla Mujeres. To get there, we had to take the ferry back to Playa, a bus to Cancun, and then another ferry. In contrast to Cozumel, our only plan for Mujeres was to relax. The main town of Mujeres is located on the northern tip of the island, which also has the most beautiful beach – an absolutely stunning tropical paradise with white sand, turquoise-blue water and palm trees. One day, we rented a scooter to go down to the south point of the island and visit a turtle farm which is about half way – but all of that could be easily done in half a day since the island is so small. And while it was certainly a touristy place, it felt much more relaxed and less stressful than Cozumel. Our hotel was also pretty amazing, with a balcony that had a hammock and overlooked the ocean. In addition, the food was amazing on Mujeres – our favorite place was a tiny little hole in the wall three minutes walk from our hotel, which made the most amazing Tacos and other Mexican delicacies (and had J’s favorite ‘salsa muy picante’).

The last day of our stay in Mujeres was also my thirtieth birthday – which we spent swimming, eating, and idling. The perfect birthday 🙂 The next day, we unfortunately had to leave again – with another long flight from Cancun via Atlanta back to Johannesburg. Since we only arrived on Sunday afternoon, I was super jetlagged my first few days back at work – but it had been so worth it.

Some pictures follow.

November Holiday Pt. 2: USA (7 – 14 November)

Monday, December 9th, 2013

After coming back from Kruger Park, we said goodbye to my brother who was traveling onward in South Africa, and then had about a day to prepare for the rest of the trip. On Thursday 7 November, we flew out to Austin via Atlanta, to attend a wedding of two INSEAD classmates. Especially the first leg of this flight was extremely long with more than 16 hours on the plane – but everything worked out like a charm.

The wedding was beautiful, and we were so happy to be part of this and also get to see a couple of INSEADers from Europe and the Americas (and even though we had the longest journey there, some others flew in from Europe just for the weekend, which is pretty insane). Austin itself was nice, even though J was disappointed that it wasn’t Texan enough… Maybe next time we should go to Dallas 🙂

The next stop on our trip was San Francisco. I had never been there before, and was quite amazed by the city. Not only can you tell that this is the technology capital of the world (paradise for a geek like me :)), but also the amount of city life that is going on, with shops and bars and culture just at every corner felt very refreshing in comparison to Johannesburg – which is very nice to live in, but for the most part at least in those areas that we spend most of our time in is just very suburban.

In SF, we met up with a bunch of INSEAD classmates (for a board game night at Yammer, which was a lot of fun) and some other friends. Also, in addition to just walking through different neighborhoods and taking in the vibe of the city, we rented bicycles one day and cycled across the Golden Gate Bridge, and then took the ferry back, passing Alcatraz on the way. Despite being very touristy, this day trip was very nice, and the bridge is indeed quite an impressive sight.

Some pictures follow.


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