Preparing and Packing for a Year of Travelschooling

In the late summer of 1995, Jo and Ed Berger commenced their final preparations for an 11 month backpacking trip which would take them and their two sons ages 8 and 11 (hey, that’s me!) through roughly a dozen European countries. Just one short year after returning, they’d once again find themselves packing for a very different type of trip. This time, the trip offered more space: A 32 foot 5th-wheel trailer and crew-cab pickup truck, but came with added challenges such as different academic needs for the boys and a high-energy border collie which shared the back seat with two teenage boys.

In this interview I sit down with Jo and ask her to reflect on what ultimately worked, what didn’t, what she wished she had prepared differently, and gain insights into the thoughts and doubts she had before leaving for the trip with the unusual insight to weigh in on how those panned out now that the boys have grown up and 20+ years have passed.

You can view my interview with Jo and Ed where we discuss the trip and they reflect on their fears learnings and key pieces of advice in the full interview here.

My Fantastic Packing Mistake

Perugia, Italy - Traveling Boots

I had a comfortable late-morning flight to Rome.  The route to Copenhagen airport is an easy one.  Hop a reliable bus for a 5 minute ride, switch to the metro for a 35 minute trip and boom. Next thing you know you’re at Copenhagen airport ready to move quickly through their efficient security lines and on to your destination of choice.  The whole process is an easy one and something that I’ve gotten the hang of.  But, what’s the old saying? Complacency is dangerous? That sounds about right.

Perugia, Italy - Traveling Boots

Many of you probably found your way to VirtualWayfarer because of one of my packing videos or blog posts.  Both are an area I specialize in and consider myself a bit of an expert in.  So, when it came time to pack for my 5 day visit to Italy I didn’t stress out about getting things pre-packed.  Oh, sure, I  did the basics and made sure that the laundry was done. I even spent some time the night before fretting over what formal clothing to pack.  You see, I was heading to Perugia as a finalist in the Perugia International Journalism Festival’s ‘Stories on Umbria’ contest but there in lurked my pitfall.

The Colosseum - Rome - Traveling Boots

As I fretted over which suit to pack … to go formal or casual … which tie to take … and how to get it to Italy without turning it into a wrinkled mess in my backpack I neglected actually packing the essentials.  When morning came and it was time to leave I launched into a flurry of motion tossing clothing, electronics, and the usual assortment of items on the bed.  I was confident – and dare I say a bit cocky – chatting on Facebook and chuckling when friends asked if I’d packed yet.  After all, I’m an expert – I only need 30 minutes.

Rome - Traveling Boots

Sidetracked repeatedly by conversations and general distractions I eventually realized that I was running a bit behind.  I made the last minute decision to wear a sports jacket, dress shirt, jeans and a pair of leather dress oxfords for the flight. I’d only have about 30 minutes between when I was scheduled to arrive in Perugia and the welcome reception/dinner so I ruled out changing upon arrival.  I also packed a full suit and dress shirt which I took in a hanging bag as a carry on for the following day’s official ceremony.  This meant I needed to pack my normal walking shoes in my backpack.  Which I did. Quickly.  Grabbing a pair of my signature Keen Targhee IIs, tossing them in an old supermarket bag, and burying it deep inside my bag all took about 45 seconds. Then in went the rest of my clothing, camera chargers, spare batteries, dopp kit and the like. I paused, and with a flourish tossed the bag over my shoulder, snagged my camera bag, my suit and was out the door.

The Vatican - Traveling Boots - Rome

I made my flight to Italy with oodles of time.  The trip from Rome to Perugia was uneventful. I applauded myself for my efficiency.  The dinner was delicious and provided an incredible opportunity to socialize with veteran journalists from the likes of the AP, New York Times, and Telegraph.  The following day’s award ceremony was equally enjoyable. Though I didn’t win the prize, being in the final three was an incredible honor.  Particularly because I was the only blogger in attendance.   I spent the remainder of the day walking around Perugia in my black dress oxfords.  It was only the following morning as I transformed from semi-formal journalist to relaxed travel blogger that I realized I’d made the worst packing mistake in my personal history.

Last Minute Packing

As I sat in my dimly lit hotel room, still a bit groggy from the night before, I pulled on my jeans, tossed a black v-neck t-shirt over my head and then dug around in my bag for my walking shoes.  Unceremoniously I yanked them out and dumped the yellow Netto bag out onto the floor.  With one hand pulling my t-shirt down over the rest of my body I slipped my left foot into my shoe and then kicked the right shoe into position.  Then, as I went to slide my foot into the right shoe I realized it felt odd.  I re-positioned, still not focusing on it, and tried again.  That’s when I looked down and paid closer attention.  That’s also when I realized that in my haste I had made an impressive error.  I had packed two Keen Targhee IIs, true.  Unfortunately the two were also two left shoes in similar, but slightly different colors.

Rome - Traveling Boots

That’s right.  I packed two left shoes. Two left shoes that were also different colors.  Sure, it would have been bad if I ended up with one left shoe and one right shoe from different pairs – that I could have passed off as being creative, or gritty, or…hell, I don’t know.  Instead I was left with one simple conclusion.  I was an idiot. Not only was I an idiot sitting in a dark hotel room, 2 days into his trip laughing at himself, I was an idiot that had three days of hardcore walking around Rome scheduled.  Not something you typically want to do in a pair of black dress oxfords with minimal support, smooth souls, and stiff leather. As far as just wearing the two left shoes?  Fat chance.

The Pantheon - Rome - Traveling Boots

Too stubborn (and perhaps cheap) to buy a replacement pair of shoes for a mere 3 days I pressed on and wandered Rome alternating between my shower flip flops and my Oxfords.  To make matters worse the Oxfords were relatively new, which meant that the leather was still quite hard and hadn’t formed to my feet. So, my penance for rushing out the door and not packing properly?  Blisters, sore feet, and a bit of blood.

Monument of Vittorio Emanuele II - Traveling Boots

Oh, and for those of you that might wonder why I have two pairs of near-identical Keens – it’s because I picked up a replacement pair right before my 50 day Africa/Europe trip this past summer.  The old pair were still good, but not quite good enough to risk the trip.  The end result: two near-identical pairs of keens which sit like old dogs at the foot of my bed. The latest in a long line of shoes which have been featured repeatedly in the 320+ photos that comprise my traveling boots album. So, if you noticed that the shoes in my recent Italy Boot Shots were a bit out of place…now you know why.

Moral of the story?  Even if you think you’re an expert, it’s still a good idea to pay attention.  After all, no one is perfect.

Turkey at Sunset and the Hoboroll – Weekly Travel Photo

A Ship at Sunset in Antalya

In celebration of my recent return from Turkey, here’s a flashback to last year’s trip.  I’m in the process of editing more than 20gb of photos from this year’s trip, so you can expect to see new shots later this week.

This photo was captured in the storied city of Antalya along Turkey’s southern coast as the last rays of sunset cast a golden shadow on the peaks across the bay.  As luck would have it, one of the local sailing ships was in the midst of a sunset cruise, and in so doing lent its silhouette to this photo.  The colors were incredible, especially as the rays of light cut between the mountain peaks and filled the valleys with a plethora of different colors, all filtered through the slight haze brought about by the cool ocean air mingling with the warm afternoon sun.

The Hoboroll – Product Review

Just before I left for my Austria and Turkey trip, the folks at Gobi Gear reached out to me and asked if I’d try out a complimentary version of their Hoboroll product after seeing a piece where I talked about using plastic bags to help organize and separate clothing inside my backpack.  Somewhat skeptical that it would be significantly better than my trash bags, I decided to give it a try on my most recent trip.  The Hoboroll is basically a lightweight fabric tube with cinch cords on both ends and which is divided into a series of interior compartments. It also has several straps around the outside and reminds me a bit of the bag you put a sleeping bag into.  In short, it’s a simple and clever idea and a great solution to the problem most of us have.  Especially those of us using backpacks that only open at the top.

After using the Hoboroll on my 23 day trip, I’m happy to say that it’s a great product.  I kept and used it throughout the trip, and found it made life easier.  Especially when it came to getting access to the bottom of my pack.  I was able to pull the Hoboroll out, and then access large and less used items such as my snowboarding pants,  sweater and spare jeans without needing to re-pack my entire bag.  It also made sorting and separating things like shirts, underwear and socks much easier.  I’ll definitely use it again on future trips, and the light weight nature of it and study construction makes it durable and backpack-friendly.

While it’s not a necessary purchase -you could, after all, continue to use plastic bags – it is a much cleaner and more efficient option.  Depending on how you use your backpack, it may make sense as an addition to your packing list.

You can find out more about the product on the GobiGear website.

Would you like to see previous Friday Photos? View past travel pictures here. This photo was taken on a Canon T3i (600D) Camera.

Packing For Long Term Travel – 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.

This week’s travel question is from Stella H. she asks,

Q. “Most of your packing and financing tips seem to be for 2 week trips, which makes sense because thats generally the most time people can afford to take off. How do you find that these things change for longer trips?”

A. – Very true! While the majority of my travel has been in 16-20 day bursts the longest trip I’ve enjoyed in the last few years was a three month adventure that stretched from Scotland in September, to southern Greece in December.  As noted in your e-mail, weather across a variety of different climates on a longer trip can be a significant challenge. These difficulties can also be found on shorter trips that hop hemispheres or cover large distances over short periods of time such as my Argentina trip which went from topical jungles to glaciers over the course of 21 days.  From the experiences garnered during these trips, my discussions with ultra-long term travelers, and research into advice from veteran RTW (round-the-world) backpackers I suggest the following:

To start with map out the approximate route you will be taking while paying close attention to the time of year you’ll be visiting, altitude and latitude.  Packing for an extended duration trip which  has fairly distinct and non-repeating climate conditions is very different from a trip that will regularly alternate between hot climates and cold climates.  If your itinerary is split between warm climates and cold climates, it is probably beneficial for you to pack predominantly for the first climate you’ll be encountering, and then set aside an additional budget to purchase the items you need for the second climate when your trip reaches that phase.  Similarly, keep in mind what warm (or cold) weather items you are willing to discard or mail home when they are no longer needed.  It’s common sense, but I find often forgotten (by everyone, including me) that clothing will likely be approximately the same price, if not cheaper in the destinations you’ll be visiting.

On the other hand, if you’ve planned a long-term trip that will be bouncing between hot and cold climates you’ll need to take a different approach, as the discard/purchase route is not economical or time efficient. In these cases I suggest focusing heavily on clothing that can be layered easily.  Leave the Hawaiian shirts at home, and instead opt for clothing that is flexible and works well as a stand alone, or as a sub-layer.   For me, this meant layering a t-shirt, long sleeve shirt, north face windproof vest, large scarf, and waterproof rain jacket with gloves for my trip to Argentina with silk underwear as a backup just-in-case. In the warmer parts of Argentina I stashed the layers and opted for a pair of jeans and t-shirt/swimsuit in the more tropical climates.  Remember that a warm scarf, good gloves, and hat go a long way towards keeping you warm. I have also been told a good pair of tights is an absolute must for women.  You’ll find that by following this approach, and avoiding absolutely extreme climates (eg: Northern Norway in winter), you’ll be in good shape pretty much anywhere you go.

When preparing for your trip, I encourage you to categorize the items you’re considering purchasing/taking with you into one of two categories.  The first should be high cost items that also need to be good quality and have an expensive replacement cost.  This list should be fairly short and will likely consist of little more than your backpack, your shoes, and your jacket.  The second category should consist of more general day-in-day-out items:  things like t-shirts, socks, a cheap sweater and underwear.  Items in the first category are the types of things you typically want to purchase ahead of time and which you don’t mind hauling everywhere with you.  Items in the second category can be replaced or supplemented fairly easily on the road and tend to have a fairly low replacement cost.  For example, if you absolutely must have that Hawaiian shirt for the beach part of your trip, pick it up when you arrive at the beach and then discard it when you head on to a colder climate.  Remember, a $12 t-shirt that you use for 1/4th of your trip isn’t worth hauling all over the world with you.

Lastly, people are often tempted to ship a drop package ahead with warm/cold weather gear (as is applicable) for the second or third leg of their trip.  While this is certainly doable and a must for some travelers, I would suggest against it in most cases.  Not only is there a significant cost associated with shipping things across continents – a cost that may ultimately be more than the simple replacement cost for the items being transported – there is also a headache and convenience element as you wait for delayed packages to arrive, deal with damaged or stolen packages, or try and find a location that is willing to receive the mailed items and hold them until your arrival.

If you review the packing videos that I’ve posted you’ll note that I tend not to change the basics much regardless of the climate i’m visiting. While most of the videos are tailored towards shorter trips my list for a multi-month budget adventure would not change significantly.  For additional insights you can see the analysis of what I took for my three month trip back in 2007 here.

Would you like me to elaborate on an aspect of this response?  Let me know!

Have a question of your own? ASK IT! Want to see previous questions? click here.

Best Bag For a Two Week Trip – 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 archved 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 Galen E. he asks,

Q. “What is the best bag for a two week trip? Why?”

A. – The easiest and shortest answer to this question is to take a small and medium-sized backpack combo.  For a more in-depth break down of different baggage types check out my Lugging Luggage, The Quandary post.  Ultimately, the answer depends on what type of trip you have planned and how valuable mobility will be to you.  With ever increasingly restrictive luggage policies I prefer to fly with only carry-on luggage, especially for shorter trips in the 1-2 week neighborhood.  The added flexibility and convenience of a backpack is hard to beat, and if you’re moving around a fair bit, facing cobblestone streets, or taking public transit between the airport and your hotel/hostel it can be wonderful to have the mobility a backpack offers.  On the other hand, if your trip will consist largely of an all inclusive resort, taxi rides to and from the airport and a bucket of beer on the beach, then what luggage you take is largely irrelevant.  I’ve assembled a number of user generated and personal packing videos on my Ultimate Packing List site which should give you a better frame of reference for how some of my readers typically pack. View the packing videos here.

At the end of the day keep in mind that most year-long, round the world travelers opt for a mid-to-large sized backpack with a small daypack as their preferred form of luggage.  While packing for a two week trip, it’s often easy to pack about the same amount as those traveling for 10-20 times that.  Even the most experienced traveler falls victim to this easy overpacking. Consider what you need, what you want, and what you’re comfortable going without and then choose an appropriate bag for your trip.

Enjoy!

Scandinavia Bound – Packing and Trip Prep

Hello friends!

As I gear up and prepare to start my next adventure later today, I’ve assembled a few tips and tricks for those of you who may be considering making a similar trip.  I’ll be spending the next 18 days traveling through Norway, Denmark and Germany, with a brief overnight stop in Dublin.

As i’ll be taking the trip between June 25th and July 13th daylight is not an issue (the equinox was on the 21st).  Temperature, however, will be. I’ll be leaving 110+ degree temperatures for the 50s and 60s which are the status quo this time of the year in central Norway.

I’ve recorded and included my latest packing video above. My key considerations have been layers, technology, and dealing with the high probability that I’ll end up drenched a few times.  The video is self explanatory, but if you have any questions on specifics, please don’t hesitate to ask!  I’ll be shooting photos/video on my Canon G11 and my Vixia HF200. Both of which I’ve been really happy with.

Transportation

When I initially purchased my ticket, I had tentatively planned to visit Central Europe. As a result I picked an airport schedule that allowed me to fly into Dublin, Ireland (RyanAir’s main hub/cheapest airport in Europe, Madrid being the 2nd), and fly out of Nuremberg, Germany.  As I watched for airfare specials, it quickly became apparent that there’s some sort of pricing tiff going on between RyanAir and Central European airports, which drove me to choose a 5 Euro ticket (total cost, 25 Euro w/ 1 checked bag/taxes/fees) from Dublin to Oslo, Norway.  Combined with the recent economic woes which have crippled the Euro/Euro area countries, it seemed like there probably wouldn’t be a better  or cheaper time to visit Scandinavia, which is notorious for its high prices.

By the time I worked in my 1 day layover in Dublin, timezone changes, and travel time I have about 15 days of actual travel time.  Which, while longer than some trips, really only gives me 5 days per country.  This forced me to scrap my initial plans of doing Sweden, in addition to Norway, Denmark and Germany as it just didn’t make sense from a travel time cost.  Unfortunately, I only realized that I wouldn’t be able to do Sweden AFTER purchasing a 4 country, 8 day Eurail pass.  In retrospect, a 3 country, 8 day pass would have been a far better choice.  That said, the price difference was fairly negligible (some $70) compared to what the cost would have been for 8 individual train trips, which removed some of the sting from the mistake.  The final price for the pass was $390 which wile a decent expense, is far cheaper than the $80-$170 price on most medium-long leg train tickets in Scandinavia and Germany.  In addition to the base $390 fee, there will be several smaller reservation fees to reserve my actual seat, but these fees should be small.

I’ve booked two other major legs ahead of time.  These are a ferry trip from Stavanger to Bergen in Norway and a budget flight from Bergen to Copenhagen, Denmark.  While I prefer to travel on a more flexible schedule, research indicated that Stavanger and Bergen are only connected by Rail through a round about route which loops back through Oslo adding 6+ hours on to any tentative trip.  A ferry ride provides the opportunity to travel through the Fjords by boat, while traveling straight north along the coast directly to Bergen.  Additionally, by booking online through Flaggruten, a Norwegian ferry company, I was able to knock the price from 750 NOK, to 250 NOK or $38.50 USD. A hard price/special to beat.

The second challenge was getting from Bergen to Copenhagen, without having to re-trace ground through Oslo and Sweden.  What would have been a 10-15 hour train ride ends up being a mere 1 hour direct flight.  By experimenting with different budget airports, airlines and destinations, I was able to find a flight for 693 NOK which is about $107 USD.  This cut hours and hours of travel time out of my schedule, was reasonable, and allowed me to spend an extra day exploring the cities I wanted to spend time in. I found the ticket through Wideroe, which seems to be the best priced discount Scandinavia airline (they also have an amazing all you can fly pass – similar to a Eurail pass).  Unlike a number of their competitors Wideroe offers a youth (under 25) ticket, which knocked the price down substantially.  By choosing a flexible departure time, and booking a youth ticket I was able to save $50-100+ off the price of the next cheapest competitor.

The rest of my travel and transport will be done via my Eurail pass or local day tour groups.

For now, I’ve gotta run.  My flight and a new part of the world awaits!

Traveling the Lonely Planet Trail

Highland Road

It’s not something widely mentioned. However, get a few travelers gathered around a fire or in a circle at the hostel bar, and you’ll start to hear it talked about: the surprising regularity at which travelers run into each other. Often these reunions happen several times over the course of a trip, sometimes hundreds (thousands?) of miles and countries apart. It’s always a surprise, though it shouldn’t be, and is usually a welcome occurrence. It happens in internet cafes, hostel common rooms, and even at random on the city streets. It seems to defy common sense – after all, the world is a big place, isn’t it?

The truth is, we make the world we explore significantly smaller by following pre-established paths. The most significant of which is what I’ve come to call the Lonely Planet Trail (LPT).  If you’re like most20-30 somethings planning a backpacking/hosteling style trip you probably opted for a Lonely Planet guide book.  Why? Because frankly Fodor’s, Rick Steves‘ etc. have done an excellent job servicing their own niches but lack real value for the average backpacker. Meanwhile Lonely Planet has targeted backpackers and done a great job developing a useful resource.  A resource which has become the go-to guide for backpackers the world over and holds a special spot in most backpacker’s packs, right next to their socks and underwear.

It makes sense when you think about it – no matter how random or willing we are to go off the beaten path, we’ll still take all the help we can get. That help (hostel information, things to see/do, even a map) typically comes in the form of a blue book with big white text on it. Which, comically enough, adds a certain level of standardization to our travel route. The most entertaining part is, that it’s almost inescapable. I can be a bit of an Ox at times and it’s not unusual for me to take off on a trip without doing a lot of research, having an itinerary or taking a guide book and yet, I’ll still find myself on the Lonely Planet Trail. Why? Because the recommendations I receive, tips and must sees are all driven, in large part, by Lonely Planet.

Marketplace in San Ignacio, Belize

Going to Guatemala? What should you see? What should you do? Where should you stay? It’s all there, just a few well worn pages away. Ask ten backpackers and you’ll probably find that 80% of their responses are similar/nearly identical and not without good reason. Lonely Planet does make very legitimate recommendations. But, those recommendations are also something to be very mindful of when charting your trip.  There’s a lot of stuff out there that didn’t make it into LP or that the author’s might not have liked/missed.  Don’t assume that if it’s not in the book, it’s not worth seeing.

Personally, I enjoy traveling along the LPT – in no small part because it ensures a more social experience.  It’s not, however, ideal for those who are really looking to break free and engage with the local population.  People often complain about how little time they spent away from other travelers.  I’d suggest that it’s often because they mistake hostel travel for truly immersive travel – which isn’t always the same.

Coastal Village

My biggest suggestion for people who find themselves traveling the LPT is to take a critical look at the suggestions before making decisions.  Is LP great for finding accommodation?  Yes.   Is it good for finding local “must see” attractions?  Usually. Is it good for budget/authentic food recommendations?  Definitely not.  Tour companies?  Hit or miss.

At the end of the day, I think the thing to keep in mind is that once a company/venue is featured by Lonely Planet, they’ve become the default go-to source for that service.  Which often results in a decrease in quality, increase in prices, and a decrease in availability.

As you chart the course for your next trip, make sure to take these factors into consideration.  Remember, your ultimate goal is to get what YOU want out of the trip and the best way to do that, is to examine even our most trusty travel tools with a skeptical eye.

Until next time, I’ll be keeping an eye out for YOU on the Lonely Planet Trail.  No doubt, we’ll share a pint soon!

The Start of A Travel Adventure – Playa Del Carmen

*I’ll start this post by sharing one of the joys of travel. Though the post itself will be presented chronologically – it’s currently the 26th of December.  I’m sitting in an internet cafe in San Ignacio on the Belize/Guatemala border and relaxing. Not 5 minutes ago a friend I made during a 3 day sailing trip I was on three days ago walked in and sat down on the computer next to me.  It truly is a small, delightful world full of new friendships and great adventures.   Now back to the story…

In typical form I haphazardly kept my packing list in the back of my mind as the days raced by.  Checking average weather reports for the region, trying to fathom how they might be accurate and debating what the true temperature would be.  After all – mid 80s in the heart of winter?  Would it truly be that warm?  Would it be a humid heat or a humid cold?

As I entered the final 24 hours before the trip I finally committed myself to packing.   I turned the living room into a war zone.  Bags laid out, clothing piled on top of clothing, shoes tossed about and items mixed into yes and maybe piles.  Eventually, I paused and recorded the video of the final packing list I’d come up with.  In retrospect I packed for too cold a climate, but more on that later.

With my bags packed, destination confirmed and brother sleeping on my sofa ready to give me a ride to the airport at 7 in the morning i crawled into bed; nervous, excited, eager.

The flight itself was what i’ve come to expect.  In typical form US Airways managed to blow it. After several phone conversations and assurances that I was A) Not on a bulkhead and B) not next to a bathroom I ended up A) Against a bulkhead (no reclining seats), B) immediately next to a bathroom (I couldn’t have been closer), and just for S&Gs C) Next to a mother/father/toddler combo.   Taking things in stride I plugged in my ear buds, turned the volume up to hide the young child’s shrieks and zoned out for the 5 hour flight.

Cancun

The view during the landing was compelling.  Beautiful beaches along the coast, intense looking jungle so thick that it looked almost uniform – as though it was scrub brush – not tall trees and lush jungle.  The landing was anything but white knuckle and the blast of hot, humid air that hit me as I crossed from the plane to the terminal a delight.

Before I knew it I had been ushered through customs and security and found myself over dressed, sweating and delighted by the weather bathed in bright sunlight and with flowerbeds full of vibrantly colored blooming flowers.  I’d arrived in Cancun.  My visit was to be brief.  Within minutes i’d found the bus stop, booked a $8 ticket to Playa del Carmen and settled in for a brief wait.

Playa Del Carmen

The bus ride was easy.  As I wondered where I was, staring out the windows periodically trying to catch a street sign, i soon realized locating my hostel wouldn’t be overly difficult.  The bus dropped me off right in the heart of the tourist district and after misreading my directions once I found my hostel.  At first I was completely put off.

Located up a stairway sandwiched between two bars the reception was a small room set off the stairs.  I paid, checked in and was ushered to the dorm room.  A cement affair that provided a pillow, clean under sheet and sheet. I was rather concerned and put off – despite the heat – by the lack of a blanket.  In retrospect, i’ve come to realize that most hostels in the region don’t provide blankets as they’re completely unnecessary.  A cover sheet is typically more than sufficient given the hot, muggy nights – even in December.  The hostel lounge, common area, kitchens and bars I’d expected were all missing as well.  More than a little disappointed I headed downstairs for a beer.  It was only on returning that I continued up stairs and realized that the hostel was all around quite decent.  I’d just missed the hallway to the two rooftop bars, pool, kitchen with free internet access and social area. All of which were a major relief, especially for any hopes finding travel friends and social connections.

Despite discovering the social areas of the hostel, things were fairly quiet.  I set off again for food – locating a taco stand by the bus station.  Six delicious tacos and Coca Cola later I was stuffed, happy and starting to settle in and relax.  I strolled along the bustling main avenue as it bled tourists, hawkers and locals onto the side streets and delighted in the white sandy beach and warm water.  It was already dark, but my spirits had already started to lift – any concern I had over picking Mexico and Belize instead of Europe was already being driven out by the joys of a new adventure in a new region.

Feeling tired I made my way back to the hostel and settled in at the hostel bar where I quickly got to know the local barman. As I picked his brain a group of guys from one of the other rooms settled in at one of the tables.  Before long I joined them – an American from the east coast, a German from the norther part of Germany, an Aussie and two Israelis.  We got acquainted, ran through the usual howdy-dos and before long were exchanging stories and advice.  As time progressed the group grew – and before long we included an American girl and her Australian travel companion.

The Israelis had taken a cab and done their own trip to Dos Ojos and Akumel for snorkeling earlier that day and spoke highly of it.  Zeno (the guy from NY) suggested we consider renting a car at a local place he’d found during a previous trip as well as snorkeling gear from a local shop on the cheap.   Thrilled at the opportunity to bypass th $90+ trips to Xel-Ha and other tourist aquatic Disneyland-esque destinations I jumped at the shot to join them.

With a car and gas split 4 ways and a $5 snorkel/mask/fin rental we were able to start the trip for less than $25 a piece.   That story, however, needs it’s own post – so stay tuned.

After setting a 9 o’clock start time for the following day I paid the $8 for a pub crawl which left the hostel a bit after 11 and headed to a new club re-opening.  The club itself was fairly unimpressive.  Over packed, hot and humid it lacked a decent dance floor and had obnoxious security guards.  That said, the did had a show shortly after we arrived which was quite impressive.  The performers dressed in extravagant outfits inspired by the UAE and Dubai performed a series of aerial acrobatics while suspended from two hanging ropes – much like what one would expect in a cirq-de-sole (sp) performance. About an hour after the performance I grew tired of the heat and excused myself – a few of the others joined me and after a quick stop back at the hostel to drop off one of the girls we struck back out to explore the rest of the city’s night life.  By two it was time for bed, and time to prepare for the following morning’s adventure!

As I crawled into bed I only paused briefly to pinch myself and reflect – some how it had only been a few hours since I landed.