The question is: To sling or not to sling?


Flying to Singapore is an adventure that I have long yearned for. Not only because it was my first time, but also because it’s a hub and destination for many high-end holidaymakers and businessmen. Singapore was able to establish its reputation as a truly modern metropolis in almost 50 years, after separation from Malaysia in 1965, when it became an independent multi-ethnic republic.

Flying on Singapore Airlines (SIA), which positions itself as the gateway to Asia, certainly makes this destination more accessible; traveling business-class makes it a further delight. In-flight entertainment had something for everyone and left no room for boredom. Meanwhile, the comfortable cushioned seats stretch out into restful beds. I know plane food can be a joke, but not on this trip; you look through a menu and choose your preferred meal, cooked by world-renowned chefs. Within one hour aboard the plane, all my worries about the 12-hour flight vanished.

Upon landing, I was bombarded by different impressions. At first sight, it looks like Dubai but at night it’s more like New York; the Singapore Flyer, which is a replica of The London Eye, adds a British flavor to it too. But after spending a few days there, I realized that despite the similarities, Singapore pulses with a creative energy of its own.

My suite at The Ritz-Carlton Millenia Singapore on the 26th floor made me gasp. Everything suggested luxury; the beige and golden tones were comforting and the king-size bed was very inviting. A large room with a huge bathroom fitted with an octagonal window took my breath away. My view framed the new glassy towers in the skyline and massive construction sites down below. Except for the scarcity of rubbish bins and tissue boxes, the hotel had thought of every detail.

Art lovers will also find this hotel a gold mine since it houses 4,200 art pieces tucked in every corner. The collection is considered one of the finest and most prominent of modern and contemporary art in Southeast Asia.

My schedule was packed and the weather was working against me — incessant rain almost every day. Nonetheless, I was able to catch a glimpse of what this modern hub was all about. Little India, Chinatown and the Muslim quarter (where you can visit the beautiful Sultan Mosque built by Sultan Hussein Shah). These are parts of old Singapore and are a must-see, with their small neighbourhoods or miniatures of India, Malaysia and China.

Strolling through these streets, you can smell, touch and feel the magnificent blend of people who once populated Singapore. These pockets of past eras are a welcome retreat if you are tired of universal architecture and urbanism. Even after the official separation from Malaysia, and the declaration of independence, Singapore markets itself as “a Muslim-friendly destination,” according to one of the Singapore Tourism board’s guides.

Singapore is home to many breathtaking parks. There is the 148-year-old Botanic Gardens, the Singapore Zoo with over 3,600 animals, and the Jurong Bird Park. I was only able to make it to the bird park housing over 600 species, but despite being the world’s largest bird park it failed to impress me. I could blame the weather, the pouring rain, or simply confess that I’m not a bird person.

Another destination which is fun for both adults and young ones is Sentosa Island, an integrated resort with a variety of entertainment. I wandered through their newly inaugurated, one-of-a-kind in Southeast Asia Hollywood’s Universal Studios Singapore. Since I haven’t been to the original, I can’t make a comparison; but walking around the theme park was thoroughly enjoyable.

 

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Jurong Bird Park

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View from my room

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Universal Studios

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Images of Singapore Museum

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Images of Singapore Museum

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Little India

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Sentosa is host to the “Images of Singapore Museum”, which tells of Singapore’s founding fathers (Malays, Indians, Chinese and Eurasian) and how they carved its history. Itshowcases their different customs, traditions, and celebrations — such a mosaic of culture is definitely worth seeing.

If you have already been on the London Eye which is the world’s highest cantilevered observation wheel, the Singapore Flyer still is a must-see. From this height, the view of the cityscape and fascinating architecture is awe- inspiring. The Flyer offers the option of sky-dining or drinking which takes the experience to new heights.

The most impressive aspect of Singapore is that it is very alive. I didn’t actually grasp the real feel of this word until I went dining on the weekend at Clarke Quay, sipping the Singapore Sling, the national drink. It’s at the heart of Singapore nightlife and is located upstream from the mouth of the Singapore River and Boat Quay. It is home to many restaurants, bars, and clubs, and the fun at Clarke Quay is contagious — everybody is eating, drinking and laughing.

Despite all the excitement and experiences, my favorite remained going back to my hotel suite at the end of the day for a bubble bath while enjoying the city view with a Singapore Sling in hand.

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The Sinai stones

I’ve met many mountains and many deserts, yet the South Sinai Mountains — especially at Saint Catherine — have a unique power of channeling spirituality. The hike was a tailor-made trek to explore the area of Wadi Jebal, which is known among the Bedouins of St Catherine as the High Mountains area and lies northwest of Saint Catherine Monastery. The hike involved walking through different valleys and vineyards, as well as visiting some mountains. The area is mostly inhabited by Al-Jebalia tribe, who came to Sinai almost 1,500 years ago.

The Greek Orthodox monastery enclosing the Chapel of the Burning Bush was built at the site where Moses is supposed to have seen the burning bush; the living bush on the grounds is purportedly the original. The site is sacred to Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Assem suggested that the rocks scattered around the valley are remains of rooms built by Roman monks who sought the spirituality of the mountains to spend their days in prayer and seclusion — a practice followed by many monks until today.

From Wadi Jebal and Rehibet Nada, and then down to Imesakha trail is the path that Al-Jebalia used to take on foot to Al-Tor city. This route was originally used by Byzantine monks between the fourth and seventh centuries to reach the port in Al-Tor, called Raithu at the time. Sheikh Moussa, the managing director of the Sheikh Sina project and a leading member of Al-Jebalia tribe, recalls that until the early 20th century his ancestors used this trail from the port to keep provisions coming to St Catherine Monastery. “My ancestors lived at the monastery, but if one of them got married he moved out,” explained Moussa. After the conquests of Amr Ibn El-Aas, Al-Jebalias converted to Islam.

Walking through the valleys, you can see the changes in color and geology. We began our trek on Abu Jifa path which would lead us to the High Mountains region. On the first day, we passed many valleys and made our first stop at Wadi Al-Shaq (Crack Valley) to revel in its beauty and drink from its natural spring. At the beginning of Wadi Al-Shaq, there are remnants of an old wall made of rocks dating back to the Byzantines who were living in St Catherine between the fourth and seventh centuries.

The rocks in Wadi Al-Shaq are smoother than the ones in the mountains surrounding the valley. Gamil, our guide, traced this to the strength of the water flow during the rain and flood seasons. This also contributed to making these rocks darker than those in the surrounding mountains.

One of the important valleys we came across is Wadi Zwateen (Olive Valley), named so for the abundance of olive trees found there. It connects Bab Al-Donia mountain (The Gate of the World), which lies on the western side of the High Mountains region and the mountains of St Catherine and Abbas. The latter is named after Khedive Abbas Helmi I and lies north of Wadi Zwateen at 2,300 meters above sea level (ASL).

According to Bedouin tradition, an asthmatic Helmi was advised by doctors to build a palace somewhere clean and fresh. Gamil orated that the khedive’s staff tested the air at different mountains in St Catherine by placing a piece of meat outdoors, and seeing which took longer to spoil. Because of good winds in all directions, Jebal Abbas was chosen as the best location. While work was still underway on his palace, the khedive died, and the project was abandoned. All that remains today are a few ruins for curious trekkers to survey.

On the hike through the valleys, I paid close attention to the flora and found the most exceptional at Abu Jifa. There, we found a plant called Kharmiee which causes eye allergies, but right next to it is Qsoom plant which will treat the allergy. “You are at one point on earth where two plant zones have met, interacted and produced a fascinating mixture of plants,” smiled Mohamed Mabrouk, who has studied the environment of the High Sinai Mountains and the vegetation geography around Mount Sinai.

Mabrouk explained that at 2,000 meters ASL in the desert, the High Mountains region of St Catherine is unique in that the climate is very different from what you’d expect in an arid area. Only a handful of palm trees survive there, but visitors from Iran and Algeria have found plants in this desert that are only native to their countries. You will also find plants there, such as Rosa Arabica, known for its aromatic vegetation.

THE PILGRIMAGE: For centuries, St Catherine has been a destination for pilgrims from all monotheistic religions. Sheikh Moussa said that Orthodox Christians from Armenia and Greece are amongst the regular pilgrims. Until the 1960s, Al-Jebalias believed that if a Muslim couldn’t afford to travel to Mecca for pilgrimage, they could visit Mount Sinai (Mount Moses or Jebal Moussa) for seven successive years instead. Even before that, South Sinai was home to the revered route of Darb Al-Hajj (Pilgrimage Trail) which began in Taba to Aqaba, Jordan, and then on to Mecca in Saudi Arabia. In fact, in 1950, Sheikh Moussa’s grandfather traveled from Taba to Mecca by camel.

Mount Sinai is also a popular destination for Jewish pilgrims on Yom Kippur (Atonement Day) which is observed on 25 April, when they mostly fast and pray. “However, most Jews coming from Israel have stopped coming after the Palestinian uprising,” indicated Sheikh Moussa.

The ancestors of Al-Jebalia tribe were wise to trade on the land and absorb its energy. Sheikh Moussa recalled that the ancestors would say that the land is measured “by the span of the hand,” meaning that each and every piece of land has a different energy. “They didn’t know geology, but they knew that there is a positive and negative aura and that the earth is connected with human energy,” added the Al-Jebalia elder.

Wadi Al-Shaq, Wadi Al-Arbeen, and St Catherine Mountain are known amongst Bedouins as Al-Makan Al-Hayy (the place most vivid), but Sheikh Moussa couldn’t explain the sensation one feels there. “It’s a feeling of serenity and energy,” he said.

On the second day, on our way to Bab Al-Donia Mountain, I was taken in by my surroundings. The magnificent view of fiery red rocks coupled with the majestic granite mountains dominated Al-Mizah Valley, with its mountains along with Al-Jeen Valley. The remnants of abandoned Bedouins summer houses in circular shapes made from St Catherine rocks were evident in the valleys we passed.

As we approached Masaba Abu Groon Mountain (the place which overlooks everything), I felt the intensity of the energy escalating. The view from the top was indeed unparalleled; it was as if I was walking on clouds. “Sinai is the umbilical cord between Eurasia and Africa,” noted Mabrouk. “Incredible signs of how they grind against each other are the Sinai dikes — cracks of Earth glued by molten basalt — are textbook examples for geologists.”

But you don’t have to be a geologist to appreciate this. Scaling Bab Al-Donia was an extra treat, and as I perched myself above the mountain and peered down from the opening that looked like a door, I felt on top of the world.

On our way to Ain Al-Nigila (Grass Stream), which was our repose destination, we crossed the valleys of Al-Shalala and Al-Bahriya as well as Farshait Al-Aranib. The word farshaa means a vast, open area between two mountains. We reached Ain Al-Nigila tired and famished, but our destination was an oasis in all respects — except for the absence of palm trees. It has a water stream and an attractive shaded area.

The site is home to the ruins of a Byzantine monastery and is perched on an escarpment in front of the Al-Nigila water stream once used by Byzantine monks living in the area.

THE TREE: A tree is very precious to Bedouins because they provide shade and sustain them in times of need. And while vineyards no longer generate much income for the natives — rain has been scarce over the past seven years — they are still honored as a source of life. There are almost 120 vineyards and orchards in Wadi Jebal, with harvests of apples, almonds, apricots, and peaches.

Amidst St.Catherine Mountains

 

THE OATH: Before St Catherine Monastery became a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2002, the Bedouins would take an oath to protect this area. Umm Mahmoud, a native who was born in St Catherine, explains that the oath implies that Kabeer Al-Arab (the elder of Arabs) had ruled that it is forbidden to cut a tree and no goat, donkey or camel could graze in Wadi Jebal to preserve its flora. Between June and November of each year, they send the animals to graze according to the agreed upon time.  “I believe Bedouins have a lot to teach the world on how to preserve our finite resources, considering how they manage to live under tough conditions sometimes,” Mabrouk pointed out.

For more info log on http://www.sheikhsina.com or call Sheikh Moussa at (+2) 0100 688 0820.

Ecuador Road Trip: Stepping into the unknown

The road map; From Llayzhatan Bajo in the heart of Andes Mountains Cuenca, Guayaquil, to Montanita, and Ayangue.

After hibernating in Canada for more than a year, my travel skills start to become rusty. I started to develop some Gringa genes, and my idea of a perfect vacation was an all-inclusive week somewhere in a beach resort. Don’t get me wrong, there is nothing wrong with it, this pampering vacations, are great every now and then, but this was a new notion in traveling for, a nomad, traveling on a shoestring, and backpacker like me. What this told me, is that my comfort zone had grown so much that it became a cocoon, and it was time to come to light.

For me, this wasn’t healthy. When I booked my trip to Ecuador in a sacred plant retreat that was enough adventure in itself. In my opinion, it is THE adventure of a lifetime. If the sacred plant did their work, or that was my biggest and deep most anticipation of my heart, I would be face to face with my biggest fears, my deepest pains, buried in the hollow of my soul, and I would be connected to the core of humanity, feeling the pains, and the joy of Mother Earth. Unfortunately, my holy path ended me up in unholy place. So I was forced by a deep voice inside my being to leave. Preparing for this trip, I harnessed the skill of listening to my inner voice, which I should have trusted in the first place when it didn’t feel good to go to this particular retreat in the first place. I didn’t lose faith in the sacred plants, still have hope that my next encounter with Mother Ayahuasca, and Grandpa San Pedro, would be better next time. I’ll leave HER to choose the time and the proper setting. My only excuse was my soul’s deep, and hungry yearning for full awakening of COUNCUISNESS.

In the light of this incident, I found myself out of my comfort zone, planning a week from scratch, with extra money to spend, since I left in the middle of the retreat, and of course, I knew since it was my choice to leave, there will not be refund. So I didn’t have time to research and had to trust my instincts and the word of mouth of what some of the people I met in my retreat suggested.

First Station, Cuenca:
It took me almost an hour in a taxi from the heart of the Andes, where I was to the heart of Cuenca. A friend whose Spanish is better than mine helped me book a room in a hostel, before arriving. So a place to stay at least for the first night, yay. Events in my trip were starting to unfold smoothly, which gave me the confidence to go on and have a bit more adventure. My plan was to go to Montanita via Guayaquil. My bedroom was so nice and cheap, with a great view overlooking one of the most historical streets in Cuenca. I jumped on the double bed, happy with the decision I made, and for the first time in a week starting to really relax. I spent a great day in Cuenca was tempted almost not to leave and spent the rest of the days in this beautiful city, know more here…https://elnaqeeb.wordpress.com/2016/12/18/cuenca-ecuador-in-two-days/

Second Station, Guayaquil:
The plan was to stay in Cuenca one night, take the bus the next morning to Guayaquil, decide whether to spend the day there and then take a night bus to Montanita or not. This city has a notorious reputation for being unsafe for tourists. So although if I want to go to Montanita, which is my final destination, I have to pass by it, I decided to skip checking it out. So as I’m regaining my solo traveler skills back bit by bit, I started by installing, HostelsWorld app on my tablet. I checked the buses’ schedule and accordingly booked my hostel in Montanita. I took a taxi to the station the next morning, packed a small backpack, and left my big luggage at the hostel since I’m coming back to catch my flight back to Canada.

The Road ahead; Cuenca to Guayaquil:
I booked with Allianz company, I think that was the only option -or that what I was told- to go to Guayaquil. The chairs were not comfortable, and the buses were in a mediocre shape. They didn’t look scary to travel in or may be because I experienced worse. My biggest surprise was the unwinding, narrow roads, with an elevation more than 3000 meters above sea level, and fog, nothing prepared me for this one. Have I ever traveled on a public vehicle where roads are narrow, and twirling before? YES. With more than 3000 meter elevation, and fog? NO. The trip from Cuenca to Guayaquil took around five hours, with almost two hours of driving in oblivious fog. Not only that I was praying all the prayers that I know from all sacred books, but I also felt nausea, headache, and great discomfort from motion sickness. It was as if I signed up to go one of Lord of The Rings movie sets, where I don’t know when the shooting is going to be over. Nothing from the road ahead was clear. The weather outside my window was all foggy, damp, cold, and rainy. I tried to sleep to pass the time. I opened my eyes as we were transitioning to a less elevation, where the fog started to dissipate, and the green mountains started to show bit by bit. The transition wasn’t only in the vision but also in the temperature, from being covered with a blanket, to stripping off most of the layers and coming down to one layer. As we were approaching Guayaquil it was getting really hot.

The station was nice, I ate there. Then took the bus to Montanita. The ride to Montanita was two hours and a half ride and the bus was much more comfortable, and the route was much more scenic. As I reached Montanita, it was almost sunset, and I was dead tired. It took me a while to find the hostel, as the bus dropped me off in the middle of the street and I wasn’t quite sure where the hostel is based on the directions they gave me. Finally, I found it, it was a building in a nice street, kind of tucked away from the bustle of the night life, however, still five min walk from everything. Let me explain this, Montanita is all and all two parallel streets and a beach with a promenade. So there is not actually anywhere that you can’t walk too, and everything you would need is in these two parallel streets. In the morning there are small booths dotting the sides of these streets offering crepes and sandwiches, on the other side, shops selling souvenirs. Same food stalls turn into cocktail bars at night offering drinks and cocktails. So seriously not a lot going on. Having said that, I loved the cozy atmosphere and the fact that everything is a walking distance.
Montanita became famous as a surfing town, then it acquired its reputation later as a partying destination in the summer, like the Ibiza of Ecuador. However, don’t get your hopes up so high, as there is no fancy parties or clubs in this place like the ones you could see in Ibiza. After being eight hours in a bus bored stiff, I was longing to stretch my body on a bed. I had rented a bed in a -4-bed dorm, since I thought it might be a good idea to meet people in such a short period, sharing a dorm room is a nice idea. I was right my dorm mates were cool, and after resting a couple of hours I joined them to party the night away. Since I’m a Latin dancing wizard, the music oozing from all around, made my soul soar. I have to say it was quite an uplifting night. I don’t remember when the last time was, I danced in a ramshackle bamboo booth, barefoot, and the sand caressing my toes, as we all sway to the Latin mellow bachata tunes. It felt liberating and uplifting. People in Montanita party hard, so it was around 4.30 am when we decided to head back to the hostel.

I think I was traveling lately in my comfort zone, except for my China trip, which was one of my Everest. So this trip was sort of me shedding the trappings of predictability and stepping into the unknown, and I loved it. It kind of restored my confidence as a wanderer Nomad. I loved the spontaneity of it, less planning, more going with the flow. I think it is quintessential to the soul to take these kinds of trips from time to time.

When I went to the dorm, I hit the bed immediately, I was beat, but happy. Next morning I have worked up some appetite so, I decided to go for a yummy breakfast, which was also cheating on my sugar-free, gluten-free diet, and eat one of these yummy double layered crepes with Nutella and fruits. My other roommate who didn’t party joined me, and we went navigating the different booths in the same street that was brimming with party animals and dotted with an array of cocktail booths the night before. We were checking people’s plates, (not very polite), I know, but we needed a reference point, and we picked one, where we liked what we saw. My dorm mate went for a crepe with caramel, and I went for the strawberry and chocolate, always a winning combination. We took our time, and we enjoyed our breakfast, and only one mantra, came to my mind, La Dolce Vita. Why can’t we enjoy life, why can’t all our days revolve around activities that we like, topics that we like to talk about, or really taking our time, and not feeling that we have to rush doing everything? I was so grateful for this quality time. My last exploring stop was to Ayangue beach. This was the closest beach according to my Dutch friend whom I met in the ecolodge that has an azure blue calm sea. We went to the dorm, got ready, packed our beach snacks, looked at the map, one more time, and asked the receptionist with a clue on which bus to take, and we headed back to wait for the bus. It was less than 10 minutes when the bus arrived, and I asked the attendant to give us a shout out when we reach our destination since there is no way you can know about your stop if you are going somewhere for the first time. It was a 30.min comfortable bus ride that took us to Ayangue. The place is basically a small fishing village, and there were hardly any tourists. There were small side streets leading to the beach, and only two main streets dotted with an array of small restaurants, and markets selling local products. The beach was breathtaking, and I was so happy that we made it, and I didn’t settle for the gray, beach in Montanita, with the high waves, that can break your neck. The beach in Ayangue was a protected bay, with fishing boats mooring on the shore, and I swear I could have thought that we were somewhere in Greece. The sun was hot, the water was azure blue, and I was so happy that I felt I could fly.

We did everything, swam, basked in the sun, laughed, played, ate, and walked on the beach. It was a day worth all this trip of flying 39 hours from Vancouver to Ecuador. Since we were almost the only tourists on the beach, we got bombarded a bit with beach vendors, but you have to master saying thank you in Spanish, with a dismissive smile. Deep in my heart, I envied these simple villagers, for having easy access to this piece of heaven, and how they enjoy the simple things in life. Packing their lunch from home, coming to the beach dressed up in simple nonfancy bikinis, enjoying the company of their family and friends. I wish I didn’t have to leave. I wish I could stay, and trade places with somebody who wants to live in a fancy Metropolis like Vancouver.
At 5 pm we started to feel hungry, and we decided to head back. We packed our picnic gear, with a big smile on our faces, I kneeled down to bid the sand, goodbye and take a final look on the gorgeous beach that hosted us for the day. Thank you. We took the same bus back and started fishing for a restaurant with good food. We weren’t as lucky as in the breakfast, but at least we didn’t sleep hungry. I ordered what “I thought” was a seafood soup Ceviche, but the problem is they served it in cold water. So after two spoons, I couldn’t really stand the fish smell in cold water, and I ordered vegetarian pasta. My friend opted for fried shrimps, and she was luckier. We walked back to our hostel and went straight to bed. I had an intention to party that night too since it was my last night in Montanita. However, When I went out the partying scene was much more subdued than the night before, so I grabbed something to drink and went for a walk in the labyrinth of Montanita. It was a nice night, with a cool breeze, so it was really enjoyable. I ran into some of the co-mates in my hostel, and we decided to go and sit by the beach. The sound of the waves was soothing and it kinda of lulled me to sleep.
Unfortunately, the next day was cloudy, and a bit cold, so not exactly enticing. I accepted that I can only go to the beach once on this trip, and spent the rest of that day mellowing out on the roof of the hostel, lazing on one of the hammocks. I also used the day shopping for some souvenirs, which were quite pricey compared to Cuenca but went for simple stuff. After spending the day shopping, I was satisfied and somehow convinced myself that I have got a good taste of Montanita, so I headed back to the hostel to pack, and catch my bus back to Cuenca.
My trip back to Cuenca was the same route but reversed. I took a bus to Guayaquil then another to Cuenca. It was a hectic, exhausting trip, that took a toll on me, and by the time I reached Cuenca, all I wanted is a nice hot meal and a warm place to sleep. I went to the same hostel where I left my luggage. This time they gave me a hole in the wall kinda of a room. It was all walls, no windows, and my neighbors were very noisy. I put my stuff, stayed in the room for a bit to regroup, and I had an impression that I got sick from this long ride on the bus. So I felt like having soup with a lot of lemon juice. I dragged my legs out of bed and went down in search for a decent place to eat. I found a small, and nice Italian food eatery beside my hotel. I went in ordered lentil soup and Lasagna. Both were very good, but I was very exhausted to finish either. I walked back to the hostel desperate for some rest. Unfortunately, my noisy neighbors made this mission almost impossible, as they kept talking, screaming, laughing hysterically, and playing till really late at night. I was too tired to go out of my room and scream my lungs out at them. So I slept anyway. I wake up at 5.30 on their noises again waking each other up, dragging their bags, calling each other in the hall. I was still in a haze between sleep and wakefulness. I decided to go to the washroom, and on my way maybe give them a piece of my mind. I couldn’t find any of them in the hall, so I went to the reception to complain, then back to my room.

I slept again, and when I woke up, I felt better, but I was famished, and I wanted to have nice breakfast. My plane to Vancouver was leaving at 8 pm that night. So I have another whole day in Cuenca. I went rummaging around for some nice omelet, croissant, and cappuccino. I found my target, sat by a window nibbling on my breakfast, and practicing the art of watching people go by. My last activity was set on talking a two-hour walking tour in Cuenca with an English speaking guide, the weather was great, and the guide took us- a group of travelers- in the colorful, historic streets of Cuenca. It was the perfect way to get more acquainted with Cuenca, I know that we still don’t each other well enough, but at least I broke the ice.

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14 hours in Mexico City

 

I have always had some kind of a calling to visit Mexico City. I have been always enchanted by the vibrant, lively colours

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Coyacan

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Streets of Coyocan

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Streets of Coyocan

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Streets of Coyocan

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La Cathedral

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of the terracotta, yellow mango, and the blue tiles combination in their architecture and interiors. I also think it is the music, and the warmth of the people I met, that made my yearning stronger. Finally, I had the chance 18 hours layover in Mexico City on my way to Ecuador, yay bonus.

I spent more time planning these 18 hours than my whole trip to Ecuador. The thing about spending so little time, in such a big city, is that you need to develop certain skills and have a STRATEGY.

Strategy 1:

Looking for a one day tour seemed to be the perfect solution. So I spent a lot of time looking for one day tours, reading recommendations from Lonely Planet, and Trip Advisor. I also came across other websites that recommended other types of tours. I felt like I was caught up in a loop of recommendations, opinions, and suggestions. So after reading sooooo many reviews, I knew what kind of attractions I’m interested in, and this was the first step on the way. I started contacting some of the recommended agencies that offer one day tours. I was really shocked by the prices and quotes they offered me because at the end of the day they cater for the “Gringos”.

 

Strategy 2:

I decided to surf more websites that cater for the travelling- on- a shoe-string- kind of traveller, which is me. And I found some suggestions like taking the Turibus www.turibus.com.mx —which I don’t recommend— for a city tour. The idea itself seemed great because you get to the see the whole city or the parts you are interested in— since they have different tours/routes—in the limited time you have. This seemed to me the most viable option, and this company was the most famous, however, after my experience not necessarily the best. The thing about these tours is that if you don’t hop off and you stay on board the whole tour takes approximately 3-4 hours. So If I decided to stay on board that would leave me with another 14hours. But, If I decided to hop on and hop off that maybe will give me some time to hang around in the areas we are visiting and then kill some time. Another idea popped up, which was my second best strategy.

 

Strategy 3:

The most comfortable place to hang out in somebody’s house is on the……? Yes, the Couch.  So I logged into my account on https://www.couchsurfing.com.It was a great idea. As soon as I posted that I’m visiting Mexico City, I got tons of suggestions, recommendations, and invitations, (I know that Mexicans are friendly but also I guess all this attention because I’m a female solo traveller) it is good to have some perspective ;). After some convos back and forth, a couch surfer offered to show me around, after my tour. I also told the fellow surfer what kind of sightseeing I’m interested in, which was basically, the streets, the people, the smells, the colours, and anything that will keep me outdoors for as long as possible in sunny Mexico, the sunny part was overrated, though.

 

The countdown to my 14 hours started:

Hour 1-2: I arrived at the airport at 7 a.m, and I have to blurt it out, this is one of the most annoying and obnoxious airports that I have been to in terms of uncooperative officers and customs procedures. This is a comparison based on the fact that I lived in four different continents, and have been to over 40 different countries, and almost 100 cities. Apart from having to pick your luggage at the airport, even if you are in transit, the fact that you have to lift it up on a high counter, and if it is heavy, nobody offers to give you a hand, even though they see that you are a lady, and struggling to lift your big luggage on their counter, was inhumane. Then, of course, the searching procedure where they have to rummage through all your stuff and hand you your bag with its belly open to reorganise again. So the first two hours I spent in the airport, going through customs, then delivering my luggage to the connecting belt, storing my valuables in a rented locker—recommended, if you are going to walk around in the city— then checking for an ATM. After withdrawing some money, not a lot, though, I went out to check the taxi rates to LA CATEDRAL, this is where I’m supposed to catch my Turibus tour.

Hour 3-4:

The rates for airport taxis were quite similar, so I just picked one and hopped on board. I choose to take one from the airport because I was advised by the fellow surfer that this is safer since I’m a female solo traveller, who only has survival Spanish. The streets of Mexico City were quite packed at 8.30 a.m. It took us about an hour to reach the cathedral, however, cruising the streets of Mexico, I found it quite fascinating, to say the least. The sights of the real Mexican people, as opposed to the one in Mexican soap operas, the street vendors, the food carts, and the coloured houses, even if it was tinted with poverty. From that moment onward I knew that I’m going to love Mexico City.

 

 

Hour 4-6.5:

I hopped off the taxi and walked towards the big plaza where LA CATEDRAL stood tall and grand. The building of the cathedral was majestic, and it demands respect. The façade was very ornate with intricate details. There was some kind of a festival going on, and they were setting up tents for the event. Turibus booth was on the side of the cathedral. I approached them, and one of them spoke some English, and I paid with my foreign credit card which was accepted, then was excited to start my sightseeing tour in Mexico City. Although I was flying from Vancouver, and supposedly “well geared” for cold weather, with lots of layers. It was quite chilly in Mexico that morning, and it was really challenging for me to sit all the time on the open deck. I did for most of the time, though. With Turibus, as advertised on their website, there are many routes, I took the most popular one, that shows you most of the landmarks of Mexico City. To my disappointed, the Wi-Fi didn’t work, as advertised, nor their bilingual guide as they said. Later on, they provided me with a pair of cheap headphones, but then the Spanish audio guide was very loud and overlapped the recorded English guide so I opt out.

 

The stops that really stood out during my tour were; Reforma Rio DE La Plata, Monumento Ala Indepencia, and my favourite La Roma. It is located in a district called Cuauhtemoc. Mexico City is full of colonial architecture mostly from Spain, however, this particular neighbourhood’s architecture is from the French colonial period. La Roma is now considered THE place for hanging out. You can see a big array of restaurants, cafes, and pubs dotting every corner. Also, it is considered a hip area and quite pricey compared to other places in the city since it is the trendiest. Turibus stops in several stations where people can choose to hop off, explore the area, and then hop back on the next bus, which passes approximately every 20 minutes depending on the traffic.

 

The tour takes approximately2.5 hours then it takes you back to the cathedral.  I was supposed to meet my fellow surfer after the tour so we can start our tour in another part of the enchanting Mexico City.

 

 

Hour 7 and I stopped counting…………

I met my friend, I was so starving, and exhausted but so excited and willing to go on with only two hours of sleep on the plane the day before, given that I can recharge with a good meal. He suggested that we head straight to our destination before rush hour since it will take us almost an hour to reach this place. We took the metro, which was quite acceptable for me compared to public transportation in Cairo, or India. We also took a bus, which I found quite challenging if I wasn’t travelling with a local. The buses were cramped up with people, and you really have to keep an eye on your belongings from one side, and your ass from the other side—if you got what I meant—standing in the middle of a crowded bus. After the daunting trip, we reached magical Coyocan. This is one of the 12 boroughs of Mexico City, which lies in the south of Mexico City. Coyocan is now considered the historic centre and is famous for housing the famous Mexican artist Frida Kahlo’s museum. The minute I set foot in Coyocan, I didn’t want to leave. The colonial architecture was mesmerising. Quaint cobbled stone streets, adorned with coloured houses, from the Spanish colonial times. The energy and the vibrancy of the area were contagious and suddenly I was full of energy, without a bite of food.

We found a historic house that was turned into a restaurant. According to my friend, it was considered touristic, but for the atmosphere, I was willing to pay a bit more. The sun started to be strong, and it was like a summer day, so I started peeling off layer after layer of my Vancouverite clothes asked for the vegetarian quesadilla, and vegetable soup. Both were good. I also tried one of their local juices with a coconut flavour called horchata. My friend had a typical homemade meal of rice, cooked vegetables, and a piece of chicken. In Mexico, as most of the Latin American culture, food is love. So most of the culture revolves around going for food or gathering together to eat out. So it is very typical to find big families out together for lunch or dinner. After lunch, it was time for dessert then coffee: D. On our quest to go to the traditional ice-cream shop, I was stopping almost in front of every house, contemplating the architecture, the colours, and its special features.

 

Coyocan has a special spirit, I found myself not wanting to spend one minute indoors, I wanted to soak it all in, the smells, the colours, the architecture. That is why when we arrived at Coyocan, I wasn’t eager to go anywhere else or see anything else because walking in its streets quenched my thirst to the image of Mexico that was yearning to see. We reached the ice cream place, the traditional Mexican ice cream is water based and is called Nieve, so you will get the flavour but not the creamy texture, which is a haven for vegans. I let my friend pick the flavours since they had many that I wasn’t familiar with. They were all great, and generally, food is cheap depends on where you go, so for three scoops of ice cream, you can pay 2.5 $. We also went to a local place that is famous for its coffee, and I ordered a small Americano which was for 1.3 $.The coffee was very good. The sun was about to set and it was time to go take a look on Coyocan Market. The market was like a small labyrinth full of people, vendors, and some singers standing by the food stalls where people were eating. It is a good place to sample local food in Mexico, as my friend suggested. However, I was still full from the ice cream, so couldn’t really try anything. There were a lot of souvenir shops, and many indigenous people selling beautifully handcrafted shawls, and ponchos. The prices were high since the place is considered a touristic area. I managed to pick two souvenirs from the market after a little bit of bargaining. Then we went to catch a bus for our final destination, San Angel.

 

I read about Coyocaan and San Angel before seeing them, when my fellow surfer mentioned that he grew up in Coyocan and that he would be more than happy to how me around, I couldn’t be more ecstatic. San Angel is a small historic neighbourhood close to Coyocan, however, it caters to a more posh segment of tourists and Mexicans alike. One can tell from the grandeur of the beautiful old style mansions that were converted to a fine wine and dine gourmet restaurants and bars. It was dark by the time we reached San Angel, so, unfortunately, many shops were closed, and people were only hanging out inside the restaurants, as it started to become cold. We took a walk in the unwinding streets of San Angel. My friend explained that some of these mansions are still inhabited by its owners who passed on the property a long time back to their children. It is considered a weekend house for these rich families, and I could tell from the luxury cars, and the bodyguards standing in front some of these houses, that this area is for the la crème de la crème of the Mexican society.

 

As I checked the time, I couldn’t believe that my 14-hours in Mexico City are about to end, and I have to start heading back to the airport. My friend took me to the bus station where there are special buses that go directly to the airport, and that guarantees that they can avoid some of the traffic by taking a special lane. I bade my friend farewell with a promise to come back to see the rest of the enchanting city. On the way back, I couldn’t help but think whether having that little time was to my advantage or not? Knowing that I have such limited time made me enjoy every single minute of this day.

 

 

 

Cuenca, Ecuador in Two days

Cuenca, Ecuador in Two days

Cuenca is a beautiful small, quaint city in southern Ecuador’s Andes Mountains. It was rated one of the most livable cities for expats. Downtown Cuenca is a picturesque dream come true for colonial architecture lovers. The buildings are mostly of the French and Spanish colonial heritage. Most of Downtown Cuenca is brimming with restaurants, shops, hotels, and hostels. So if you are in Downtown Cuenca, you want to find a hostel or a hotel there. The variety is huge, and the prices are competitive. The first time you set foot in Downtown Cuenca, locate where Parque Calderon is. This is the heart of downtown, and from there it is easy to walk around and come back to it.

How I did it?
I knew that I would have as little as two days and one night in Cuenca. One full day and night before my road trip, (stay tuned to read about it), and one day till I leave to the airport that night. I checked hostel ratings on hostelworld.com, then choose one, in my case Check Inn Hotel, gave them a call, you can ask a local to use their phone and give them a dollar for the call, then did a booking. This will work if your plans are last minute, or you don’t have a credit card to book online.

It was a fantastic location, but again most of the hostels are pretty much in the heart of El Centro. That day I was lucky they gave me a room with a great view on the street with gorgeous buildings and huge windows, and it wasn’t that noisy at night.

I spent that day browsing the streets of El Centro, and pinning all the places I want to see when I come back.

What is important to see?
EVERYTHING. If you are not tired of walking, WALK. The side streets are hidden The city center or El Centro, is very small, you can pretty much cover it in one day walking around. Calle Large and it translates in English as the large street, is a mesmerizing stroll, with all the colorful buildings, street cafés, and small eateries. Hungry?

Where to eat?
As anywhere else in the world, the closer to the main street, or where the tourists are likely to hang out the more expensive it gets. So I looked down the side streets first, with a target in mind, a friend in Mexico taught me to look for a paper that says Especial Hoy, posted normally outside of the restaurant, (today’s menu). Normally, that will be cheaper than ordering a la Carte and it will usually include; soup, salad, and sometimes dessert, plus, this is how the locals do it. I came across one restaurant on a side street which offered lunch for $3. Typically, what you should pay for lunch in Cuenca is between 2-3$. My lunch had soup, a plate of rice and veggies, a scanty piece of chicken, and a yogurt dessert. I found this quite fair for the price. There are an array of restaurants in the area that offer endless choices that caters for different tastes, and budgets.

Are Ecuadorians friendly?
I hate to be blunt, but no. I didn’t find them particularly friendly, in comparison to Mexicans. They were quite impatient and dismissive, especially if you are struggling with the language. That made google translate with Spanish offline my best friend on this trip. To give them the benefit of the doubt, I only cruised the touristic areas, so may be outside of these areas people will be more welcoming. But anyway, this was my experience and everybody is different.

When I came back from my road trip, I had one full day and a PLAN.
Crunched in time? Here is a secret tip; Take a day tour. Get a glimpse, sample the city, if you can’t have the full meal, get the flavor.
AND that what I have done. I googled free city tours Cuenca, and it turned out right on my doorstep. There is an iTur office http://www.cuencaecuador.com.ec, and it is in the main Plaza Calderon. They do a free two-hour walking tour every morning at 10 am. So my plan was browsing for a good place for breakfast, and be at their door step at 10 am.

In my search for a glorious breakfast to wash away, the horrible night sleep the night before (lousy, noisy neighbors, plus didn’t get the beautiful room as last time). And the fatigue of spending eight hours on a bus on my way back to Cuenca, I set my budget limitations aside. So I headed for the main street looking for a nice place for breakfast. I ended up sitting in Tutto Freddo, which is a famous ice cream place, and I liked how fresh their baking goods looked. I paid $3.75 for an Americano breakfast, which simply was: a small croissant, an omelet, a spoon of butter, a spoon of jam, a juice, and a coffee. Although the portions were ridiculously small, the quality was really good. So I forgave them.

The two-hour walk was very informative and interesting, I highly recommend it, and the guide spoke both English and Spanish. This walk is free, but you kind of tip the guide with whatever you want to give at the end. I spent the rest of my time in Cuenca cruising the streets that I haven’t covered during the walk, so by the time the sunset on Cuenca and me I bade her farewell with no looking back.

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