Don’t Fear A Visit To Myanmar

Despite hearing glowing stories about visits to Myanmar (formerly called Burma) from friends, it was with some trepidation and a significant sense of adventure that I booked the ticket for my brother and I from Copenhagen to Myanmar’s former capital, Yangon (formerly Rangoon). Most articles about Myanmar right now either focus on the drug trade/Golden Triangle, armed conflict in several of the remote regions, or gush about the importance of, “visiting Myanmar before it’s ruined”.

Frankly, we didn’t know what to expect. Was it going to be dangerous? Was it going to be massively under-developed? Was there any tourist infrastructure at all? Would the visa process be a nightmare? Would we need armed guards to guide us around the country or military minders ala North Korea? Were food poisoning and feces stained walls surrounding filthy squattypotties lurking around every corner?

Inle Lake - Myanmar - Alex Berger

As usual, it was ignorant pigswill.

Myanmar is spectacular and the sooner you can visit the better.  The people are wonderful. The tourist circle; Yangon to Bagan to Mandalay to Inle Lake and back to Yangon could not be safer. The food is decent. The culture is vibrant. The tourist infrastructure is rapidly evolving (perhaps too rapidly). Getting around isn’t difficult.  It’s relatively affordable. The historical, natural and cultural beauty is spectacular.

A Road Trip Through Denmark in Fall

If you crack a guidebook for Copenhagen you’ll find a number of great (and not so great) suggestions.  Everything from a visit to The Little Mermaid (yuck) to the incredible vista out over the Sand Buried Lighthouse or Skagen’s world famous light. One thing missing is a suggestion to see Denmark, in Fall, as the leaves change.  This past fall I had the pleasure of, mostly by happenstance, taking a week-long road trip with family through Denmark at the end of October. The results were a complete, and utterly enchanting, surprise.  Of course, if you’re somewhere with four distinct seasons, the beauty of fall is a given.  But, there are some places that are better equipped to charm your socks off and, after my road trip, I’ll happy add Denmark to that list.

What makes it special? A large portion of the Danish countryside uses buried power lines. Fences are also usually less-than-blatant, or artfully done where present. This creates rolling farmland, with fresh fall/winter cover crops sprouting (or blooming), with a sporadic mixture of small stands of trees and large forests. The forests themselves range in density and plant life fairly significantly throughout the Danish landscape. With a wealth of islands, exposed coasts, and inland lakes Denmark’s forests are also typically heavily blended with many types of trees thrust together in a veritable tree-bouquet that adds rich texture, depth, and in fall a brilliant array of colors.  All of which is dotted by small one and a half lane country roads, brilliant coast line, charming old farm houses many of which are brightly colored and have thatched rooftops…and then of course, brilliantly hygge historical Danish towns.

If you’re visiting Denmark from abroad, another great incentive is that depending on how and where you book, the country which is famous for its 180% tax on new vehicles has tax-free rentals specifically available for visiting foreigners which results in drastically reduced rental prices and in many cases unlimited mileage. These rentals require that you and your drivers don’t live in Denmark and are not Danish citizens. If you meet these criteria, renting a car suddenly becomes a very affordable way to see the country.

So, without further adieu, here is a mixture of color photos taken during my week-long road trip through Denmark, including visits to the island of Fyn, Sjaelland, and Jutland. Don’t miss the full album on flickr here.

The Back Roads of Jutland

This is How You Eat in Copenhagen For Less Than 100 DKK

Copenhagen Smørrebrød

There’s one essential rule for enjoying a city: it always looks better on a full stomach. In Copenhagen, that can be surprisingly difficult to accomplish for students and budget travelers alike. With a minimum wage that floats around $21 USD cheap food for the Danes is still quite often expensive food for the rest of us.   There are a few guides to eating on the cheap in Copenhagen floating around, but most are absolute hogwash and seem to fail to understand the concept of “cheap”.  This two-part guide isn’t intended to be exhaustive, but it does share a number of places I’ve discovered and strategies I use for enjoying cheap Danish food. The first post is dedicated to general types of venues with budget friendly food, while the second in this two-part series will outline specific recommendations and venues.

Want specific restaurant recommendations?  Jump straight to part two of this series, “Where To Eat In Copenhagen For Less Than 100 DKK“.

Types of Cheap Food

Hot dog Stands and 7/11 – Danes make great hot dogs. They also offer them in a wide variety of shapes, sizes, and forms. Prices typically range from 19-35DKK per dog.  You can also find a beef or “Bøfsandwich” which is a bit like a Danish Sloppy Joe.  These are an ok snack, but most folks will need at least two dogs to fill up which ratchets up the price considerably.  7/11 also offers a mixture of foods including hot dogs, small salads, and other-like kind snacks. It’s not a great option and their prices are a bit high for what you get, but it is still relatively cheap and a good option if you’re in a pinch.

Kebab/Pizza Combo Shops – These are your best bet for a filling budget friendly meal.  They’ll all provide kebab (usually beef/lamb mix) and falafel (vegitarian) while most will also have chicken. While not terribly healthy, these aren’t nearly as unhealthy as many other options. It is also the go-to budget/ethnic/drunk food in Copenhagen.  These shops also, though not always, serve pizza. The kebabs come in one of two formats: Pitabrød or Durum.  The first is the smaller of the two and comes in a pita, the second is larger and wrapped in something resembling a tortilla. Fixings vary but usually include a yogurt sauce, lettuce, tomato, onion and the potential for a tasty but not terribly spicy chili.  There aren’t a ton of kebab or pizza places in the city center, but there are a few. The highest concentrations can be found in Nørrebro and Vesterbro.  Prices will also be cheaper the further you move from the city center. The price of a Pitabrød should range between 20-30DKK and a durum between 30 and 40 DKK. Keep an eye out for a mix option, as that’ll let you pick up a good bit of extra meat for a minimal price increase.  In Nørrebro in particular you’ll find that many of the kebab shops run lunch specials, especially along Nørrebrogade.

Pizza shops typically start at around 50 DKK for a pizza and go up to around 80DKK. Pizzas in Denmark are often roughly plate sized and good for 1-2 people depending on your appetite. It is common to find kebab meat and kebab chicken meat used on the pizzas, so be prepared for slightly different flavors than you may be used to.  Many pizza shops also run lunch specials which can drop the price of a pizza to as low as 39 DKK but often brings them down to around 50 DKK.  If you want to keep to your budget, consider a Pizza for lunch instead of dinner and then rounding the meal out with a kebab for dinner.

A third type of kebab shop can be found that has kebab skewers in addition to pitabrød and durum meat. These are predominantly found in Nørrebro with plates usually falling in the 65-80 DKK range. Plates often include two meat skewers, rice or french fries, and a small salad. The meat is cooked over coals and heavily inspired by Turkish kebab.

Buffets – These are largely confined to the city center and cater predominantly to tourists. Quality varies widely, but in general they’re not likely to kill you and typically range in cost from 50 DKK to 90 DKK for an all you can eat buffet.  The easiest way to find them is to walk Strøget (the main shopping street) while looking for people holding up signs or to visit on of the three I’ll mention in my follow-up post.

Sandwich and Bagel Shops – With the bulk of their prices falling between 40 and 60 DKK sandwich and bagel shops can be found all over the city and usually offer filling, albeit light, options.  Produce in Denmark tends to be very high quality and extremely fresh, so these are often a very popular option among Danes and tourists alike.

Smørrebrød Shops – Small, local, smørrebrød shops are something that you typically have to seek out or research in advance.  They can be found scattered throughout the city, and sell Denmark’s most common lunch-food. Learn more about smørrebrød in my previous post about it, here.  Prices for smørrebrød can fluctuate wildly but budget variations can be found for between 12-15DKK a piece. Expect to eat 3-5 for a meal.  These shops also often close by 2 or 3PM and are lunch/brunch only.

Salad Bars – I’ve only recently discovered these.  As a big guy with a big appetite I spent a lot of time scoffing at the city’s plethora of salad bars. In reality, however, these offer surprisingly tasty and filling options. Particularly because most include a piece of heavy danish rugbrød with your order. The typical format includes a few pre-set menus that let you order three, four, or five different “salads” which range from spinach to chicken and noodles.  A filling three item menu usually runs about 50 DKK and is sufficient for a meal.

Supermarkets – If you’re like me, cooking lunch or making your own sandwiches is all well and good…but sometimes just not something you’re up for. Luckily, while nowhere near as extensive as the Delis in US supermarkets, Danish markets often have a few options available. While you won’t find much of an offering in the budget supermarkets like Netto, Fakta, or Rema 10000 you will find them in some of the larger markets such as Super Brugsen, Føtex, and Kvicky.  Food quality can vary widely, but you’ll also find cheap access to traditional Danish foods such as cooked pork, fish fillets, and some variations of smørrebrød. These are also a great alternative to the fancy Danish bakeries when you go seeking that tasty Danish or dessert.

Ethnic Takeout – Unfortunately, take-out in Copenhagen is still quite expensive. Dominated by Asian and Indian cuisine, meals often start at around 70 DKK.  These qualify as a tasty option for less than 100 DKK, but aren’t anywhere near the cheapest option you’ll have in Copenhagen.  Still, if you’re looking for take-out or a sit down meal, the small ethnic dives that can be found throughout the city and are most common in Nørrebro and Vesterbro are a great option. They’ll also usually provide you with fairly hearty portions.

*American Style Fast Food – McDonalds and Burger King are the default for many travelers when on a budget crunch. However, neither are particularly budget friendly options in Denmark.  With a Medium Big Mac Menu going for around 55-60 DKK and the Whopper Menu starting between 60 and 70 DKK you can get a much better meal for the same money.  Both do have budget menus, but even a basic cheeseburger typical runs around 10 DKK or $2 USD.  Considering KFC?  Good luck.

Ready for my hand picked list of specific places to try?  Jump to part two of this series, “Where To Eat In Copenhagen For Less Than 100 DKK“.

One Must Have Item – Ask Alex – Travel Question Wednesdays

Ask Alex - Travel Question Q and A every Wednesday

This post is part of the Ask Alex, Travel Question Wednesdays weekly series. To see previous questions click here. To submit your own; tweet it to @AlexBerger, ask it in a comment on this post or send it in by e-mail.

A quick introductory note – When I began authoring VirtualWayfarer in July of 2007 I never expected that I’d still be blogging on travel, adventures, study abroad and everything that goes with it nearly five years later. Over the years I’ve had a lot of questions and luckily my friends, network, and more than a few random strangers have gone well out of their way to answer those questions. While I still find myself asking questions on a regular basis I’ve found that I can also pay it forward as a resource for friends, my readers, and strangers alike. In an effort to share what I’ve learned from my various adventures I’ve launched Travel Question Wednesdays. I’ll be answering one reader-submitted question every week. You are all encouraged to submit, and all past questions will be archived and available as a resource for readers of this blog. I’m going to take a very open approach to the topics I’ll cover, so feel free to ask me just about anything , just keep it somewhat travel related.

This week’s travel question is from Pernille N. she asks,

Q. “When you are short-term travelling, is there one item you will never go without?”

A. – There are a few items that always find their way into my bag. Power adapters, a small luggage combination lock for hostel lockers, my cameras and a pair of jeans are all items that I won’t leave home without. However, the one that best answers your question is likely a microfiber towel. While many hostels (and most hotels) offer a towel as part of your room, or for a small additional fee, I find having a microfiber towel on hand as a backup is always a welcome travel tool. For the last few years I’ve used a small MSR Packtowl. As a funny side story, I actually accidently ordered a hand towel (about 9×20 inches) in place of a regular small travel towel. It arrived right before a trip, and I didn’t have time to swap it out. I decided to go with it anyhow, and I’m glad I did. Despite it’s size (it’s too small to wrap around me), it takes up virtually zero space, dries quickly, and is so absorbent that it is sufficient to dry me off completely.

I find that I use the towel about 70% of the time during hostel stays. It’s flexible, incredibly durable and can double as a small table cloth in a pinch. The more I use it, the softer it gets while retaining its super absorbent nature. They really are fantastic travel accessories, and as an added bonus you don’t have to worry about a large, bulky traditional towel which is prone to mold, takes forever to dry and can be extremely heavy. My mini-towel weighs less than a dollar in quarters, and rolls up into a ball about the size of a roll of pennies. Microfiber towels are made by a variety of vendors and are relatively cheap. I highly recommend them for people who want a useful backup or who are considering a bit of camping or hosteling.

Pernille, thanks for a great question! To my readers – have a question of your own? ASK IT! Want to see previous questions? click here.

Tallying Up The Cost: 21 Days In Argentina

El Calafate Airport - Patagonia, Argentina

What does a breakneck, budget conscious, adventure trip through Argentina cost? Here’s the financial break down from my recently completed 21 day trip.  These figures cover all of my direct trip expenses (they don’t include equipment I already had such as shoes and a backpack). Travel period: December 15th – January 4th.

This trip visited Buenos Aires (3 times), Ushuaia in Tierra del Fuego, El Calafate/El Chalten in Patagonia and Iguazu in Misiones.

Argentina is commonly hailed as an extremely cheap destination.  While I’d agree that by western standards it is a relatively cheap destination it is not, by Latin American standards, cheap.  At best I’d flag it as moderately priced.  As I understand it the nation has seen massive inflation in the last half-decade, particularly in its tourism infrastructure.  An infrastructure which operates as part of their greater transportation infrastructure, but with deep discounts for locals and natives.

The size of the country also contributes significantly to the cost of exploring it in depth.  While Argentina has a train infrastructure, it is limited and tourists are widely encouraged to avoid it.  Similarly, the country has a decent air infrastructure, but it is only serviced by 3 major airlines. Of which the government influenced Aerolineas is the primary provider.  The other significant provider is LAN Airlines.  Unfortunately, there are no ultra-budget airline providers as can be found in Europe and parts of the US which make flights fairly expensive. On the upside, Aerolineas offers a tourist pass which allows you to buy discount credits.  While not vastly cheaper, for anyone flying the minimum of 3 legs it is a viable option.

Lastly it is important to note that Bus travel is the primary method for long distance travel in Argentina. While relatively slow compared to high speed rail or air travel the long distance bus system in Argentina was surprisingly pleasant albeit somewhat expensive.  Even my 18 hour bus ride from Buenos Aires to Iguazu was a relative pleasure with the level of service and comfort well above what I’ve grown used to while flying.  For a little bit more (~420 vs ~360 Pesos) I opted for the S/Cama or near-bed service which allowed me a full night’s sleep (almost unheard of when I fly/do trains).  On the BA -> Iguazu leg they served complimentary Scotch, beer and wine in addition to two meals and a beverage service.  The bus also boasted several TV screens which played American movies with Spanish subtitles.  For those visiting and on a budget, don’t rule them out if you’ve got the time to travel a little slower. Make sure to read through Wikipedia’s writeup on Transport in Argentina.

The Raw Figures

ATM (Cash) – $1,680.40

Bank Fees – $27

Credit Cards – $256.99

Airfare – $1,968.71

Total: $3,933.10

Argentina is a Credit Card phobic country.  That means that $1.25 stick of bubble gum you’d normally purchase with your Credit Card in the States is going to have to be a cash purchase.  Most larger purchases (over $10 USD) can be put on a Credit Card though it is surprisingly hit or miss.  This in large part accounts for the $27 in added bank fees I had to pay.  Though that figure is misleading as that’s only the fees charged by my domestic bank.  Each transaction also had an added 16 Peso ($4) fee charged by the Argentinian bank and my domestic bank adds a 3% currency “exchange” fee. Ouch.  Especially since my Capital One Credit Card doesn’t have any international use penalties.

Note that a full half of my trip expense was for Airfare.  Of the actual on-trip expenses, the Cash/Credit Card fees include several major purchases. These include $200 for the Big Ice Glacier Trek in El Calafate, Approximately $150 combined in Ushuaia for Penguin and Tierra del Fuego National Park tours, $80 for an amazing Tango show at Cafe de los Angelitos in BA, an extra $50 in accommodation over hostel prices during Christmas in El Chalten  and $200 for round trip Bus travel from Buenos Aires to Iguazu.

Concerning airfare: I took a total of four flights. They were a mixture of round trip, one-way and progressive tickets.  They were as follows:

-Phoenix to Los Angeles Return

-Los Angeles to Buenos Aires Return

-Buenos Aires to Ushuaia / El Calafate to Buenos Aires

-Ushuaia to El Calafate One Way

In general the remainder of my expenses went to food, drink, entertainment, accommodation and minor transport.  All accommodation was hostel based and with 1 exception ranged between $10-$20 USD.

In Buenos Aires only use “Radio Taxis” and don’t set a custom price unless you’re doing a long haul trip and know what is reasonable.  In general, relying on the meters was a much more cost effective option.  Of the 3 times I negotiated my own fare I came to realize later that I’d paid almost double what it would have cost otherwise.

Hopefully this helps you plan your adventure to Argentina.  Questions or areas you’d like more in-depth information about?  Please feel free to leave a comment and I’ll be happy to answer what I can.

For those who are regular readers, you may note that this was the most expensive trip I’ve taken so far.  This was in large part due to the egregious airfare costs associated with the trip and fast rate of travel.  Faster = more expensive every time.

Safe travels, open roads!

Tallying up the Cost: How I Afford to Travel

Parrot on Breakfast Sign in Flores Guatemala

No matter who you are one of the biggest obstacles and considerations when planning a trip is cost.  Out of all of the reasons regularly given for why people “can’t” travel, cost is the one I’ve found to be the most common and frankly, it’s with good reason.  Jumping on a plane, flying across the world and spending several weeks away from our normal day-to-day infrastructure has the potential to not only be stressful, but also quite expensive.  Especially if you treat your travel time as a vacation “splurge” as most Americans do.

The great news is, it doesn’t have to be. Ultimately, it comes down to how you’re willing to travel. Splurge travel is terribly expensive but often reflects how we’ve been told we “need” to travel.  The truth is, budget travel is all about re-framing your normal day-to-day lifestyle so it works for international travel.   By doing this I was able to spend 36 days abroad in 2009 on two separate trips while holding down a normal salaried job while limited to two weeks paid vacation.

The final cost for both trips including airfare and all ancillary expenses?  Less than $5500 dollars. The exciting part?  If I’d truly wanted or needed to, I could have easily done the trips for $1,000 less. As is, I’ve found that Ive historically averaged about $2700 for a 16-18 day trip to Europe and about $2300 for a 20 day trip to Central America.

Fresh Lobster in Belize

How To Do It

Most people will tell you that budget travel starts when you hit the road.  It doesn’t.  It starts at home, months before you begin a trip.  The key to being able to afford to travel at all is managing your expenses and eliminating areas where you’re throwing away money. Once that’s done, it’s important to look through your daily lifestyle expenses in order to identify which expenses are flexible and which expenses are fixed.  More on this in a second.

First: What you DON’T want to do is book a ticket, and put your entire trip on your credit card, planning to pay it off once you get home.  What you DO want to do is eliminate all credit card debt.  If you’re a 20 something reading this blog, there’s a decent chance that you’re not paying your credit card off fully every month.  If you’re in this category, you’ve got a HUGE expense that you can easily eliminate. Interest costs money especially if you’re paying 15-20% APR.  A lot of money – as in hundreds if not thousands of dollars extra each year.  By paying off their credit card debt and adopting a policy of paying off your total  in full each month – you’ll find yourself with a lot of extra money for future trips.

Second: Cut out major splurge expenses.  It never ceases to amaze me how the people who constantly complain about lack of money turn around and spend ridiculous sums of money.  I regularly see these people spend hundreds of dollars on tickets to see a musical performance or at sporting events. If not some sort of live, one time event, it’s usually hundreds of dollars spent on things like electronics, designer furniture, expensive hair salons or overpriced clothing.  Eliminating a few of these expenses a year may be enough save up for the trip of a lifetime.

Third: Food and Bar tabs.  If you’re in your 20s or 30s and live a social life style, you’re probably spending a lot of money on food and drink.  As a single, 20 something male, I know that this is the area where I’m able to make the biggest cuts. Bar tabs can be insanely expensive. If you’re one of those people spending $60-$200 on bar tabs a weekend, a few basic changes will add up quickly.  Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying don’t go out.  I’m saying drink smarter and spend less. Significantly less.  Like to eat out?  Consider trading fancy high end eateries for often equally delicious, albeit significantly cheaper local venues and dives.

For the average person, following the tips I’ve outlined above should save you at least $1,500 a year.  For most, it’ll result in saving significantly more.

Alex in Scotland

The Next Step

After re-evaluating your current expenses and identifying areas where you can make cuts, it’s important that you identify different types of expenses.  Some expenses are location specific and aren’t flexible. From trips under a month in duration you’re pretty much stuck with things like your monthly rent check, cell phone bill and car insurance.  However, other expenses – like food, gas, entertainment and bar tabs – are flexible.  This is the exciting part, because by re-allocating those expenses during your trip, you’re actually going to be depleting your savings far less than you expect.

Tally up your average weekly expenses in this category and pay special attention to the final number. I know that I average about $12/day on lunch, $10/day on dinner, $40/week on Gas, $20/week on entertainment and $50/week on bar tabs and random meals.  That alone accounts for about $264 in expenses a week and leaves out a number of similar expenses.  It also means that I can spend at least $528 over a 14 day period on the road without changing my cost of living, a single penny.

You’ll also need to take into consideration your type of employment.  Are you paid hourly or are you on salary?  Again, this is significant because it dictates the extent of your opportunity cost.  An individual on salary taking paid time off has a major advantage over someone who works hourly for tips.  The unfortunate reality is that the opportunity cost for the salaried individual, who’ll have an uninterrupted revenue stream is dramatically lower, than that of the hourly worker who won’t be able to work/collect a pay check while abroad.  The trade off, however, is that it’s significantly easier for the hourly employee to take off several weeks at a time. Regardless, don’t forget to take your type of employment and opportunity cost into account.

Dock in Belize at Sunset

The Trip

Travel for less – How?  By picking a time for the trip that is slightly off season. This is important because airfare, accommodation and even food can be much, much cheaper.  Remember, the more money you save on each of these (within reason) the sooner you can take your trip and the more trips you’ll be able to budget for.

Keep it Regional – Let’s assume you’re like most Americans and you’ve budgeted for a relatively short trip (20 days or less).  The temptation is to try and visit as many locations and countries as you can possibly squeeze into one trip.  Honestly?  Don’t.  I regularly talk to friends who plan on seeing London, Paris, Berlin and Rome in a two week trip. Unfortunately, these types of schedules are a horrible idea.  Traveling costs time and money – especially when you’re covering large distances and crossing international borders.

Cut your expenses dramatically by planning regional trips that avoid long leg voyages.  By doing this you’ll save a lot of money, see more, and get more out of the experience.  Unfortunately, capital cities are capital cities.  They’re typically big, industrial and modern. Sure, each has it’s own flavor and unique draw but the real adventures and beauty lies in a country’s other cities and towns. After all – what would you think of America if all you came and saw was Los Angeles, Detroit and Philadelphia?

Be Reasonable – You don’t need to stay in a 4 star hotel to be happy and get a lot out of your experience.  Remember, your goal is to minimize a-typical expenses.  Besides, the truth of the matter is you’re going to enjoy yourself far more in a hostel then you would in a hotel.  Book hostels, and consider couch surfing as a way to reduce accommodation expenses and increase socialization.  Remember, there’s no better place to meet friends and travelers than in a hostel common area or bar.  Besides, most hostel bars and restaurants have food for far cheaper than the surrounding area.   Feeling the need to splurge a bit?  Then splurge on a smaller room at the hostel – instead of blowing your daily budget on a private room at a hotel.

Eat and Drink Smart – Your three major expenses on the road will be food/drink, accommodation and travel.  In fact, these three should/will probably make up some 2/3 of your daily expenses.  Be smart about it and push your boundaries.  Identify the local budget foods (Indian in the UK, Gyros in Greece, Kebabs in Europe, Beans and Rice in Belize, Tacos in Mexico etc.) and eat those regularly.  Heading to the pub?  Stop at the supermarket first and pre-game. Alcohol is expensive, be smart and remember – other travelers are on their own budget, so there’s no reason to be a big spender. If you’re going to buy someone a drink keep it to locals-only as a thank you for their hospitality, no reason to go off and buy round after round.

Don’t Shop – Sure, everyone asked you to pick them up something before the trip.  Not to mention, the shoes sold in Paris are – I’m told – quite fantastic. But, let’s be frank.  You’re there to experience the culture, meet people, see amazing things, and maximize an already stretched budget.  Not buy worthless shit.  If you’re going to pick up a keep sake or two – go for it when you find them on sale.  If you need a shirt or jumper while on the road?  Then pick one up – but don’t go off on a silly spending spree.  I can’t tell you how often I see people start a trip, arrive at their first destination and blow a small fortune on crap – before they’ve even gotten up and going.

Above all – Get out there and have fun.  The biggest obstacle to travel and taking a trip is excuses. If you make the decision to take the trip, stop making excuses, and prioritize – you’ll be able to enjoy the wonders of the road in no time.  Stop wishing and start doing!

You’ll notice that this post doesn’t dive heavily into the finer details of budget airlines, etc.  for that I’ve taken my previous Tips and Tricks list and created http://theultimatepackinglist.com – hope you find it equally as useful!

Have another piece of advice?   Please share it in the comments!  As always, thanks for reading!

Dos Ojos, Tulum, Akumal and Four Guys in a Car

**Make sure to catch the video [here]!

Despite forgetting to bring a watch/alarm clock/time piece of any sort waking up before 9AM was easy. Between the heat, the sun and the humidity it’s almost impossible to be anything but a morning person in this part of the world. With the sandy grit of sleep still heavy in my eyes I stumbled up to the top deck and found Zeno already up and waiting. We chatted briefly about the plan, then set off to roust Philipp and Shannon out of bed. Before long the four of us struck out across town in search of a dive shop to rent snorkel gear from and the car rental place Zeno had used in the past.

A good 20 minutes later we found a dive shop willing to rent fins/masks and snorkels for $5 us/day. Happy with the price we snagged our gear as well as an underwater flashlight and then continued on to the car rental place. I have to confess that the price of the car escapes me now – but it was dirt cheap split between the 4 of us. I want to say in the neighborhood of $60 US total for the day. Half a tank of gas and another $10 later we were on the road and headed south. The drive was easy with the only option being a lone major (two lane each way) highway that ran through town. The stops were all obviously marked and tailored to tourists.

Dos Ojos

A 45 minute drive to the south we began searching for the Dos Ojos exit. Before long we spotted and passed a small sign for Dos Ojos dive shop. Unsure if it was just a retail outlet, or the actual entrance to the caves we continued another mile before backtracking and re-locating the small turnoff. The entrance fee for walk-ins was 100 pesos or just under $10. Fee paid we were waved down a dirt road that wound 2km or so inland to the Cenote. The two eyes or “Dos Ojos” are two sinkholes that offer access to the Cenote system which is a series of underwater caves (typically flooded) that crisscross the Yucatan.

Once parked in a small dirt parking lot we stripped down to our swimsuits, lathered on sunscreen and made our way down the path towards the first of the two caves. The path wound through lush underbrush 15 meters or so before dumping us at a large wooden staircase that took us down 30 or so feet into a part of the sinkhole. The view that greeted us was was stunning. A large pool of crystalline turquoise water sitting in a large cave entrance with a small wooden dock built out into the water. Eager to explore we donned our fins and snorkel gear and jumped in. Much to my relief the water was warm and refreshing.

The exposed part of the cave formed a giant semi-circle that offered a large cavernous space that wrapped back and around a corner. The ceiling started some 20+ feet up before slowly drifting down, periodically dotted by massive series of stalagtights, before dipping under water and out of reach. The water was lit from outside and visibility was excellent. The submerged stalagtights were breathtaking. I’ve seen my fair share of caves and never, ever, seen anything quite like it. All set to a stunning backdrop as rays of pure light shot down from above and through the water in the most enchanting of ways.

Submerged it was possible to see the divers as they made their way from the second eye through the underwater cave system. Lights twinkling in the distance below us as they slowly floated along the bottom.

Dos Ojos Cenote Snorkeling in Mexico

Time and time again I caught myself as I returned to the surface, just narrowly missing the cavern ceiling or a a large stalagtight. As far as animal life – there were a few small minnows but that was it. They darted around us as though it were all some giant game.

Eager to explore the second cave we returned to the dock, donned our shoes, climbed the wood staircase, made the brief walk across the road and found ourselves at a slightly larger and significantly deeper cave entrance. This one had a raised dock perfect for canon balls/jumping in and lush vegetation, including hanging vines that came right up to the water’s edge. The bottom was also white sand instead of the collapsed rock that we’d encountered in the previous cave. Words cannot describe the beauty of the natural blue hues of the water. It was, truly, stunning.

Cave Tarzan at Dos Ojos

Eventually we explored every nook and cranny we could gain access to. I’d done my fair share of jumps and dives off the dock and could feel hunger pangs nagging for my attention. Amazed at what we’d seen we headed back for the car eager to continue the adventure.

Tulum Ruins in Mexico

Tulum

Eager to maximize our time with the car we set off straight for the ruins at Tulum. We parked in a small lot and walked the brief stretch to the entrance to what was once an impressive coastal Mayan fortress. I got sidetracked briefly as i purchased a fresh coconut and downed the coconut water in a series of deep gulps.

Maya castle wall at Tulum

50 pesos later and with tickets in hand we made our way into the complex. The first surprise it held for me was a thick fortress wall. For some reason I had never associated castle walls and the Mayans. It was a delightful discovery that left a smile on my face as I threaded my way through the tiny doorway/gate in the castle wall.

Tulum Mexico

The inside of the Tulum ruin is fairly sterilized as is to be expected of a major tourist ruin. There were paths to walk on, cut grass and stabilized ruins. Despite that the site was impressive. A mighty set of ruins set on top of small cliffs and a series of stunning white sandy beaches. The rich blues of the Caribbean ocean and added charm of coconut tree after coconut tree added to the impression of pure paradise.

Feet on the Beech at Tulum Ruins in Mexico

We wandered the ruins taking in the sights, paused briefly on the beach to kick off our shoes and play in the 80+ degree water and the wound back down to the entrance just as several light raindrops began to fall. By the time we got back to the car we were all fairly wet, but in high spirits. The rain was warm and refreshing. Hardly worth fretting.

Tulum Beach and Ruins in Mexico

From there it was in to the city of Tulum itself where we quickly found a small taco stand down a side street. The host suggested “Hecho” which turned out to be a heaping plate with rice, a side of bread and a delicious (mild) pepper, octopus and shrimp plate served with corn tortillas. We ordered a coca cola and orchata to drink and were delighted when the host brought out a platter with two types of ceviche, garlic mayo and chips. We also split an appetizer which consisted of 4 sealed/fried taco shells. Two were stuffed with cheeses, 2 with seafood. The seafood one I ended up with was delicious…a mixture of fish, shrimp and squid. The whole meal was less than $15 and absolutely delicious.

Akumal

Recharged it was off to finish the day with a brief stop at Akumal. A swimming destination known for the local sea turtles. Dusk was fast approaching and the storm clouds we’d encountered briefly at Tulum foreshadowed a far more ominous storm on the horizon. The normal park was closed which left an empty beach for us after a brief warning from the departing life guard to stay inside the buoys.

Eager to take advantage of the last vestiges of the day we donned our gear and snorkeled out towards the reef. We warily watched storm clouds out of the ocean and the telltale sign of heavy rains as we floated and enjoyed a spectacular sunset. While the spectacle above the water was magnificent, we enjoyed equally delightful discoveries under water – stumbling onto a huge sea turtle relaxing on the bottom, several types of rays and another smaller turtle.

Growing tired and eager not to get stranded at sea in the dark we paddled back to shore arriving just as what turned out to be a howling wind and fierce rainstorm hit. Pelted by stinging wind-driven droplets of rain we grabbed our gear and made a B-line for the car. Soaking wet we dove into the car trying to escape the rain – thoroughly entertained. We were all delighted to partake in the adventure and laughed heartily as we made our through the pouring rain back towards Playa del Carmen.

The drive back was uneventful. We escaped the rain after a few minutes and eventually got back in time to return the car and our snorkel gear. The rental company insisted on charging a “cleaning” fee because the car seats were wet – which was small – and more of an annoyance than real concern.

From there it was back to the hostel where we settled in for another evening telling stories, making friends and exploring the town. The highlight of which was an impressive fire show being put on for free at one of the ocean-front bars.

I’m off to explore San Ignacio now – i’ll edit in photos and video once I get home and have the bandwidth to upload them. Truly an incredible day.

Fish, A Frying Pan and $9

Howdy all,

I’ve decided to follow up on my previous post in which I shared my technique for cooking a live Dungeness crab, shrimp, squash and salad for $15. For today’s project I chose salmon, sole, yams, and a side salad. Total project cost is about $9. In usual form my focus is on simplicity, price and how to use your frying pan/microwave to cook anything you can dream up.

Instead of writing out a step by step I’ve recorded a video of the process. Additional comments, information, options and directions are included below.


Ingredients/Price:

  • .7 pounds of fresh salmon (skin on) – on sale for 5.99 pound – cost approx $4
  • .2 pounds of fresh sole – cost $1.00
  • 1 lemon – cost $.70
  • 1 yam – cost approx $1
  • 1 bunch of onion chives – $.60
  • 1/4 white onion – $.50
  • 1/2 bag pre-mix leftover spring salad – cost $1.25
  • Odds and ends herbs/salt/pepper – not priced.
  • 1 quick pour of open white wine I had on hand – not priced/necessary.

I tend to have a cavernous appetite and as a result the portions I cook are often fairly large. If you have a small/medium appetite you could easily cut out the sole, or reduce the size of the salmon portion in order to drop the price of the meal. For the super price conscientious you might also substitute lemon juice in a bottle for the real deal. While effecting the taste somewhat (I used half of a whole lemon with the peel on as flavoring) a few drops would still allow for sufficient flavoring. I have not tested this recipe on other types of fish, but it should work with almost any mild fish including trout and tilapia.

Spices – In this recipe the primary flavoring comes from salt, pepper, lemon and onions. However, if you have rosemary, sage, or other spices like those shown in the video feel free to apply them. As you do so, just follow a simple rule – how will this taste with fish, onion, and pepper?

Cooking time – fish cooks extremely fast and tends to be pretty thin. Keep an eye on it. You want it to be moist and flaky, but if you overcook it, it will fall apart and you will end up with more of a soup than a fillet.

I hope this was helpful!