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Experiencing the 2019 Daegu Lantern Festival

If you had asked me when I first moved to Daegu which upcoming event in the city I was most excited for, I probably would have said the Daegu Dalgubeol Lantern Festival. After seeing pictures of the lantern ceremony online, I knew there was no way I was going to miss it this year. The online photos all showed an incredible spectacle that looked just like the beautiful “I See the Light” scene in Disney’s Tangled. I’m a huge Disney geek, and Tangled is one of my favourite movies, so I was stoked to have a real-life Rapunzel experience of my own.

The first thing I had to do was to get my hands on a ticket to the festival. It’s basically impossible to buy one online, since they always sell out within, like, the first 30 seconds of being released. (And I’ve heard that the ticket website is only available in Korean anyway.) Luckily, there are always a limited number of tickets available to buy in-person on the day of the festival. They’re sold just outside the baseball stadium in Duryu Park, where the event is held. Ticket sales don’t open until 11:00 a.m., but I knew I would have to get there early if I wanted to be sure of getting a ticket.

Sure enough, when I arrived at the baseball stadium at 9:30, there were already almost a hundred people in line for tickets. I took my place in the queue, sat down on the curb, opened up the book that I’d brought with me to pass the time (Shantaram by Gregory David Roberts, which I cannot recommend highly enough), and prepared myself for a long but worthwhile wait.

By 11:30 I finally had a purple wristband on my arm that would admit me to the special section of the stadium for foreigners. (I think this new foreigner section must be a new addition to the festival because I’ve never heard of it before.) The price for a ticket was 10,000 won or 30,000 won for a group of four. Luckily for me, there was a group of seven people standing in line in front of me who needed one more person to make their party a multiple of four, so I joined with them to get the discount.

I still had several hours to pass before the lanterns would be released, so I headed to nearby Gwanmun Market and whiled away the time shopping for secondhand clothes. (Pro tip: Gwanmun Market is a paradise for thrift store lovers and bargain hunters like me.)

I arrived back at Duryu Park around 3:00 and headed for the baseball stadium. There were already lots of people there, picnicking with their friends on mats they had laid out in the bleachers. There was a ton of confusion among festival staff members as to which entrance foreigners with a purple wristband were supposed to go through, but I finally made it into the stadium shortly before 4:00. There were only a few other people in my section yet, so I was free to sit wherever I wanted.

Daegu lantern festivalDaegu Daegu

After settling into my seat, I once again had nothing to do but wait and wait and wait, until darkness fell and the lanterns would be released. There were some traditional Korean performances on the stage to entertain the audience in the interval, but none of them were particularly riveting at the distance I was sitting from the stage.

By the time darkness had finally fallen, the impatience in the crowd was palpable. Nobody seemed to know exactly when they were supposed to release their lanterns, but everyone was clearly itching for the main event to begin. We were all cold and bored and tired of waiting. Lots of people decided to signal their impatience by letting their lanterns go early.

Daegu Lantern Festival

A rogue lantern, released early

Daegu Lantern Festival

People are definitely getting impatient now…

Finally, a little after 8:00p.m., the spectacle began. I’m not sure (or maybe I just don’t remember) what the signal was, but suddenly everyone in the crowd began to light their lanterns and release them into the air. The sky was soon filled with hundreds of shining, glittering orbs of light, dancing above our heads. It was truly one of the most magnificent sights I have ever beheld. And yes, it was just like that scene in Tangled, except instead of “I See the Light” there was another beautiful song playing that sounded like it was from some kind of opera. The music suited the event perfectly, and really heightened the emotional aspect of it.

Daegu lantern festivalDaegu lantern festivalDaegu lantern festivalDaegu lantern festivallantern

If there was one disappointing thing about the event, it’s that it was over so quickly. I only had a couple of minutes to take as many photos and videos as I could before the lanterns went on their merry way into the stratosphere. Because of the short duration of the spectacle, I was doomed to commit one of the most common and most tragic of all tourist sins: experiencing an event almost entirely through one’s phone screen. I was so desperate to capture some decent photos and videos in the short time I had that I hardly looked away from my phone to actually pay attention to what was happening around me. I knew that I was going to do this, because I always do this (ugh), but I was still disappointed. Sigh.

After the lanterns had floated away, there were some fireworks over the stadium. They were nice enough but they also only lasted a minute or two, and I didn’t manage to capture any decent photos of them. There was a parade afterwards, too, but I didn’t stick around for it. I had had a very long day and was dying to just make dinner at home, curl up in bed, and stare at my phone for a while.

All in all, the Daegu Lantern Festival was an amazing experience, even though it required an entire day of waiting around for an event that only lasted a couple of minutes. I’m hoping to go again next year and to try to do a better job of actually experiencing the incredible spectacle happening around me, instead of just frantically snapping photos of it. Let’s see how well that works out…

Reflections on My First Month as an EPIK Teacher

Now that my first month as an EPIK teacher has come and gone (actually my first month and a half — I’ve been procrastinating with this post!), I figured I should jot down a few notes about how things have been going so far. Read on to find out how life as a middle school teacher is treating me in Daegu, South Korea.

Firstly, I have to admit that when I found out on the last day of EPIK Orientation that I would be teaching at a middle school, I was a little disappointed. I had been hoping and expecting to be placed in an elementary school, as most EPIK teachers are. However, looking back now, I’m so thankful that I was assigned to middle school instead. I have very little experience working with kids, and I really don’t know how well I would have handled being in charge of a room full of 30+ elementary schoolchildren. Besides, teaching a language to someone completely from scratch seems like an incredibly daunting task. Most middle school students already have basic English skills, so I can communicate with them much more easily than I would be able to do with younger children. I haven’t completely ruled out trying my hand at teaching elementary school one day, but for now I’m perfectly happy in my role as a middle school teacher.

EPIK teacher
The English classroom: what I see
EPIK teacher
The English classroom: what my students see
School lunches are bomb.

In fact, I think I really lucked out with my position. I like my school, I like my students (well, most of them), and I like my co-teachers. I teach students in first and second grade, which is the equivalent of Grade 7 and 8 in Canada. I only teach 18 classes (plus one after-school class) a week, which is less than many other EPIK teachers’ workloads. Moreover, I was quite pleasantly surprised at how quickly I adjusted to my new job. Having had zero previous teaching experience — and not having done any public speaking since graduating university seven years ago — I expected to be super awkward my first time standing in front of a room full of 30-odd teenage faces staring expectantly at me. I assumed it would take me several weeks to find my groove and start feeling comfortable teaching a class. Honestly, I thought I was going to be so nervous on my first day that I wouldn’t even be able to eat breakfast. But the whole experience turned out to be so much less scary than I thought it would be. I was a little nervous on my first day, of course, but the nerves were nowhere near as bad as I thought they would be. (And I ate my breakfast just fine.) It definitely helped that I didn’t start teaching until my third day of work. During my first two days, I simply sat in the 2nd-grade teachers’ lounge working on lesson planning. That was nice because it allowed me to get accustomed to the school, to learn where things were and how things were run there, instead of just being handed a textbook and thrown headfirst into teaching on Day One.

My schedule: only 18 classes a week
The 2nd-grade teachers’ lounge, where you’ll find me whenever I’m not in the English classroom

Of course, as with just about any job, there are certain aspects of being an EPIK teacher that are less than perfect. I think what’s been the most disappointing aspect of the job for me is how much difficulty I have had learning students’ names. I’ve always kind of flattered myself that I’m good with names, but trying to learn my Korean students’ names has proven an impossible task. At this point, I’m pretty sure that the vast majority (as in 99%) of their names will forever remain unknown to me. In my first week, I had the students make nametags for themselves, with the hope that they would bring their nametags to every class and place them on their desks facing me. In my overly ambitious mind, I thought it would be easy for me to pick up their names after glancing a few times at the nametag sitting in front of them. Ohhhh boy, how wrong I was! It’s one thing to remember someone’s name if that name is common in your native language, but quite another thing to learn roughly 540 Korean names that all sound completely foreign to your English-speaking mind. After a month of teaching, I think there are exactly five students in the whole school whose names I know (and two of them are not even the students’ real names but only their English names: Sally and Stella). By the time my third week of teaching began, none of the students were even bringing their nametags to class anymore. I guess they knew as well as I did that my learning their names was a hopelessly lost cause.

Anyways, enough about the job. How have I been adjusting to life in Korea? Swimmingly! In fact, adjusting to life in this country was even easier than adjusting to my new job as a teacher. As far as “culture shock” goes, I can’t say I have really felt it at all. Korea is a modern, wealthy, first-world country, and things run pretty much the same way here as they do in other modern, wealthy, first-world countries. Of course there are little differences, like how students bow to teachers (including me sometimes) in the hallways at school, and how all the teachers are constantly bestowing gifts of rice cakes and oranges on each other. But for the most part, daily life unfolds in Korea in much the same way that it does in Canada. I should probably point out that the exorbitant price of groceries here caught me a little off-guard at first, since nobody had warned me about it beforehand. However, pretty much everything else is cheaper here than in Canada, so things balance out moneywise.

A teacher who gives me oranges all the time brought me a yummy homemade macaron last week. How did she know macarons are my favourite things in the world?

As for Daegu, it’s a great city to live in. There’s so much to see and do here. The job has been keeping me pretty busy from Monday to Friday, but I always have plenty of time on the weekends to get out and explore. I keep telling myself that one of these days I’m going to actually get out of Daegu and explore other parts of Korea, but I still have tons of things to check off my Daegu bucket list first.

EPIK teacher
Daytime view over Daegu from Apsan Observatory…
…and the nighttime view from the same spot!
Yours truly, admiring the cherry blossoms at Suseong Lake
Cherry blossoms at the Jijeo-dong Cherry Blossom Tunnel
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A sunny Saturday stroll through the Daegu Arboretum
EPIK teacher
Another pic taken at the lovely Daegu Arboretum
EPIK teacher
Cherry blossoms lit with LED lights at E-World’s annual Starlight Cherry Blossom Festival
EPIK teacher
A tranquil scene at Duryu Park

On the whole, my transition to life in Korea has gone just about as smoothly as I could have hoped. I enjoy teaching middle school, I love living in Daegu, and I can’t wait for all the adventures I expect to have in the next 10.5 months. Stay tuned!

Hiking Mt. Apsan in Daegu, South Korea

Once again, I have allowed a considerable stretch of time to pass since my last appearance in the blogosphere. So many travel-related things have happened in the past few weeks that I could have written about, but I’ve been too busy (and too lacking in motivation) to bother. Long story short, I moved to South Korea on Feb. 20 to teach English with EPIK. After landing at Incheon Airport near Seoul, I was whisked away to Konkuk University in the city of Chungju, where I spent a week listening to lectures and participating in seminars at EPIK Orientation. After that I was put on a bus and carted off to Daegu, where I started teaching at a middle school on March 6. I like the job so far, but lesson planning has been taking up a lot of my free time, and blogging — as so often happens — has been put on the back burner.

Anyways, last Saturday I decided to reward myself for completing my first week at the new job without any incidents. (Well, without any major incidents…On my first day of teaching, I accidentally said “shit” in front of an entire class of second-grade middle-schoolers, resulting in the biggest eruption of laughter the school probably heard all week. OK, maybe that does count as a “major incident,” but it could have been worse, right??) Since Daegu is surrounded by mountains and is known for its fantastic hiking opportunities, I decided to climb up one of the city’s most heavily-hiked mountains: Mt. Apsan.

I found Mt. Apsan fairly easy to get to via public transportation. The night before I planned to set out on my hike, I consulted a few other blogs and websites to figure out how to get there. All of them said that I would need to catch a bus in order to get to the beginning of the trail. This bummed me out a little, as I was worried about having to go through the hassle of figuring out where and when to board the bus. Luckily, however, when I looked at a map I found that Mt. Apsan is only about a 20-minute walk from Hyeonchungno subway station (on the red line). No bus required! Hassle averted (this time).

I arrived at the base of Mt. Apsan at 11:00 a.m., and began my long hike to the top. There are several different trails of varying lengths and difficulties that you can take to get there. Since I didn’t have a map with me, and didn’t know where to get one, I stuck to one rule: Whenever I came to a fork in the trail, I took the path that led the steepest way UP. I mean, when climbing a mountain, one cannot go wrong as long as one keeps heading in the general direction of “up,” right?

Finally, at about 12:30, I arrived at the top of the mountain. I still had a short way to go before I reached my main objective — Apsan Observatory — but my efforts were rewarded here with a little peek over the city as it stretched off into the distance.

hiking Mt. Apsan in Daegu

hiking Mt. Apsan in Daegu hiking Mt. Apsan in Daegu

After walking along the trail a little longer, I came to a café that looked like this:

hiking Mt. Apsan in Daegu

On top of the café was a viewing platform called Sopra Observatory. No purchase from the café was necessary to visit the observatory, so I walked right on up. On reaching the top of the stairs, I was met with the most spectacular view over Daegu.

hiking Mt. Apsan in Daegu

hiking Mt. Apsan in Daegu hiking Mt. Apsan in Daeguhiking Mt. Apsan in Daegu

Apsan Observatory on Mt. Apsan in Daegu

Apsan Observatory


After staring at the magnificent scene before me for several minutes, trying to make note of all the tiny details, I continued on my way along the trail. Finally, at about 1:00 — two hours after I began my ascent up the mountain — I arrived at Apsan Observatory. A rather sizeable crowd was gathered on the viewing platform, but there was still plenty of space for all of us to admire the amazing vista spread out before us. As is always the case when hiking a mountain, the view more than made up for the arduous trek to the summit.


I must have accidentally taken one of the longer trails up Mt. Apsan, because I went back down by a different path and it seemed to only take a matter of minutes. (Obviously I know that walking DOWN a mountain is much easier than walking UP. But even when taking that into consideration, I’m sure the path I took back down was a lot shorter than the one I took up.)

On the way back down, I passed by the beautiful Anilsa Temple. My phone’s battery was almost dead by this point, but I couldn’t resist stopping for a bit to snap some photos of the colourful, intricately-detailed architecture of the temple.


By the time I arrived back on level ground, I had just enough charge left on my phone to navigate my way back to Hyeonchungno station via GPS. Next time I go hiking, I will remember to bring my portable charger!

My day on Mt. Apsan was definitely a day well spent, and just the release I needed after a week of being cooped up inside, slaving over lesson plans. If you’re looking for a great way to while away a sunny afternoon in Daegu, you can’t go wrong with a hike up Mt. Apsan!

 

5 Days in Cancun

I made Cancun my final stop on my six-week trip through Mexico because I wanted to save the best beaches and the best parties for last. I was super excited for Cancun’s crazy nightlife and miles of postcard-perfect beaches, and this city totally delivered. Read on to find out how I spent five days in this tourist hotspot.

On my first day in Cancun, I arrived in the early afternoon after an 80-minute bus ride from Playa del Carmen. After checking in to my hostel and eating a huge meal of fried noodles and veggies at a Chinese restaurant (a girl can only eat so much Mexican food on a six-week trip), I decided to walk to the city’s main attraction: the beach!

My hostel was located in downtown Cancun, several kilometres from the beach and the Hotel Zone. I knew there was a frequent bus that shuttles people between downtown and the beach, but I didn’t know where the bus stop was, so I figured I would just walk. However, after walking for about 15 or 20 minutes and realizing how little the blue arrow on my GPS had moved, and how great a distance I had yet to travel before I reached the ocean, I decided that my plan to walk to the beach was a little too ambitious. I turned around and walked back to my hostel, where I asked a staff member about the bus that goes to the beach. He told me that the bus stop was just one block away from the hostel, and that buses come every 30 or 45 seconds, 24 hours a day. Best of all, a ride only costs 12 pesos. Perfect! I decided to save the beach for the following day, when I would have more time to enjoy it.

The next morning I walked one block to Cancun’s main road, Avenida Tulum, and found the bus stop easily. Sure enough, a bus came by before I even had time to dig 12 pesos out of my wallet. I got on the bus and rode it to La Isla Shopping Village in the Hotel Zone. I don’t know exactly why I wanted to see La Isla, since I wasn’t planning on buying anything. It’s just a super touristy, open-air mall with canals running through it. There was a Ferris wheel there that looked like it would have afforded killer views, but it didn’t appear to be in operation at the time.

I spent a few minutes walking around La Isla, then decided to walk five kilometres to Playa Delfines. I had heard there was a nice viewpoint over the beach there. I could have easily taken another bus, but I wanted to walk so that I could check out other beaches on the way, and also take pictures of the luxury hotels along the main road.

The first beach I came across was Playa Marlin. Just like every other beach I would later come across in the Hotel Zone, Playa Marlin is pretty much perfect. The powdery white sand goes on and on and on, the sea comes in my favourite shade of turquoise, and there’s tons of empty space to lay out a towel. It’s a basically flawless beach.

I returned to the road, walked a little more, and soon came across the entrance to the next beach, Playa Ballenas. It’s literally the exact same as Playa Marlin: absolute paradise.

As I walked along Kukulcan, the main road running through the Hotel Zone, I took pictures of the fancy luxury hotels, with their palm tree-lined driveways, perfectly manicured lawns, and elegant fountains. A world away from the backpackers’ hostel where I was staying!

When I finally got to Playa Delfines, the viewpoint wasn’t exactly what I was hoping it would be. It’s not that high, so you can’t see a whole lot of the beach from it. But you can see enough to realize that Playa Delfines is the epitome of the perfect beach. I snapped a million photos of it.

I hadn’t brought my bathing suit along that day, but I just couldn’t resist putting my feet in the clear aquamarine water at Playa Delfines. I walked to the shoreline and stood for a while letting the water wash over my feet, then I headed back up to the road and took a bus back to my hostel.

The next day I went back to Playa Delfines with a girl from Montreal whom I had met at my hostel the day before. The first thing we did when we arrived was to get in line and wait our turn to take pictures of each other in front of the “CANCUN” sign at the viewpoint there. (This was my idea, of course — I’m such a cheesy tourist sometimes!)

After that we picked a spot on the beach to lay out our towels, and I went swimming while the Montreal girl stayed on the beach. The water was absolutely perfect, refreshing and cold but not too cold. It was definitely the nicest swim I had in Mexico. I could have stayed in the water forever.

As we were lying on the beach after my swim, the weather took a bit of a turn for the worse. It would be hot and sunny for a few minutes, then the sun would disappear behind the clouds and the wind would pick up and blow sand in our faces. We never felt exactly cold, but we certainly weren’t hot enough to fancy going back in the water. So we just continued lying on the beach for the rest of the day, then took the bus back to our hostel.

The next day, both of us slept in until shortly after 1:00 p.m. (We had had a big night out in downtown Cancun with some other people from our hostel. As I recall, it involved lots of cheap white wine, followed by outdoor salsa dancing with locals in a public square.) Finally we managed to drag our hungover asses out of bed and take a bus to the beach.

We went to a different beach this time, Playa Gaviota Azul. It was quite a bit busier than the other beaches because it’s located right behind the main shopping and clubbing area. It was still just as gorgeous as every other beach in Cancun though.

Cancun

I went for a swim as soon as we had picked a spot to lay out our towels. Then, as we were lying on the beach afterwards, the weather started behaving the same way it had the day before. It wasn’t cold by any means, but it was not exactly swimming weather. We still enjoyed lying on the beach though. It was actually kinda nice to have a break from the oppressive heat I had been experiencing most of the time in the Yucatan.

I haven’t said much about the nightlife in Cancun, but I have to mention what I did on my second-last night, because it was one of the most fun things I did in Mexico. The Montreal girl and I, along with a few other people from our hostel, made a trip to Coco Bongo. If you haven’t heard of Coco Bongo, it is THE place to party in Cancun. It’s a nightclub that puts on nightly shows with acrobats, dancers, and performers impersonating famous singers. The best part is that the ticket price includes an open bar all night. At $85 USD per ticket(!), it’s not a place you’re going to party every night, but you have to go just once if you’re ever in Cancun. For a long time, I was hesitant to go because I doubted that any nightclub could be worth $85 USD, but I’m glad I finally bit the bullet and went. The performances were amazing and I had a lot of fun there. It’s a can’t-miss! (Unfortunately, I don’t have any photos from Coco Bongo because the people working at my hostel warned us not to bring our phones, or even to bring anything except the money we would need for the bus. Apparently a lot of people lose their phones there. Let me tell you though, I saw plenty of people at Coco Bongo recording the performances on their phones, and I wished so badly that I had brought mine!)

On my last day in Cancun (which was also my last day in Mexico!), I went to Mercado Coral Negro, an artisans’ market just down the street from Coco Bongo. I browsed the wares a little but had to leave after only a minute or two because I just couldn’t stand the constant harassment I got from the vendors. I couldn’t go one-and-a-half seconds without someone calling to me, “Hola, senorita! Habla espanol? What you looking for? Can I help you? What you want to buy?” I tried my best to ignore them, but it’s hard work to ignore so many people that are right up in your face, so I just left.

After that I went back to Playa Gaviota Azul, which is just across the street from Mercado Coral Negro. I spent quite a while lying on the beach, soaking up as much sun as I could before I had to board a plane back to cold, dreary Toronto the next day. Then I gathered up my stuff, cast one last wistful glance upon the turquoise waves crashing in the ocean, and took the bus back to my hostel to start packing for my flight home.

As you can see by this summary of what I did in Cancun, it’s a great place to go if you want to be lazy and do nothing but lie on a beach all day. I met a few fellow travellers in Mexico who said they had skipped Cancun because they had heard it was too touristy. Personally, I think it would be a terrible shame to skip this city on a trip through Mexico. I always say that every place that’s touristy is touristy for a reason, and that is definitely the case with Cancun. I honestly think that the beaches here are the nicest beaches I have ever seen. If you’re looking for a place to just relax and soak up the sun for a few days, I wholeheartedly recommend Cancun. If there is a more perfect beach in the world than the ones in Cancun, someone please let me know because I would love to see it!

5 Days in Playa del Carmen

The penultimate stop on my trip through Mexico was the fabulous beach town of Playa del Carmen. Here’s a run-down of what I did during the five days I spent there.

I arrived in Playa in the early afternoon after a quick one-hour bus ride from Tulum. I had gotten very little sleep the two previous nights (Tulum nightlife is too much fun!), so I was not in the mood to exert myself too much that day. After eating, wandering the streets a little, and taking a few pictures of the beach, I went back to my hostel and took a nice long nap.

I woke up from my nap to a message from an Argentinian girl I had met in Tulum a couple nights earlier, asking if I wanted to go to Cozumel with her the next morning. I said yes, and we agreed to meet at her hostel at 8:30 a.m.

The next day, we met at the agreed-upon time and walked to the ferry terminal together to take the 9:00 ferry. (It leaves every hour on the hour.) The official price for the ferry at the ticket desk was 200 pesos one-way, but we managed to find a travel agent who sold us each a round-trip ticket for 300 pesos.

We disembarked in Cozumel after the 45-minute ferry ride, and set to work looking for a place to rent bicycles. After asking around a bit, we realized we weren’t going to find a place that would rent a bike to us for less than 200 pesos each, so we gave up that plan. Then we happened to run into an older British couple who were looking for the closest beach, and decided to share a taxi with them.

Between the four of us, we paid 300 pesos to take the taxi to Playa Palancar, a beach on the southwestern side of the island. I wasn’t super impressed with this beach. It’s not very wide, so there’s not a lot of space to lay out a towel. And if you go in the water, you have to wade through a nasty mass of seaweed close to the shore before you get to the nice, seaweed-free, swimmable water.


The Argentinian girl and I spent a short time at Playa Palancar, then took a taxi for 100 pesos to another beach, Playa Paraiso. This beach was better than the first one. We spent most of the day here, swimming and lying on the sand. The Argentinian girl brought her snorkel and saw lots of cool fish in the water. (She even told me that she found both Nemo and Dory).

Later in the afternoon we decided to walk south along the beach, and we discovered that it got even better the further we walked. Not only are the southern beaches much more spacious, but they were mostly deserted when we were there.

Shortly after 5:30 p.m. we left the beach and took a taxi back to the ferry terminal for 220 pesos. We started running as soon as we got out of the taxi, but we missed the 6:00 ferry by a minute or two. While waiting for the next ferry (at 7:00) we wandered through the city streets a little. It was a really nice place for an evening stroll, especially with the Christmas decorations that were up.

There was a cruise ship sitting in Cozumel’s port, all lit up and glittering on the horizon. It was just begging to be the backdrop for a little photoshoot.

After our photoshoot with the cruise ship, we walked back to the ferry terminal and caught the 7:00 ferry. We arrived back in Playa at 7:45. I had been planning to go out that night, but since we got back so late I decided instead to just grab some dinner, figure out what I was going to do the next day, and then head to bed.

The next day I decided to visit two nearby cenotes: Cenote Azul and Cenote Jardin del Eden. In the morning I walked to the spot where the colectivos leave, on Calle 2 at Avenida 15. On the street there was a line-up of people being shuffled into colectivos. I’m used to having to wait for a long time for a colectivo to fill up with passengers and leave, but there was no waiting this time. The colectivos were filling up as quickly as people could hop into them. Within a few minutes after I had left my hostel, I was on the road to the cenotes.

After less than a 30-minute ride, I got out of the van at the entrance to Cenote Azul and paid the driver 35 pesos. At the Cenote Azul ticket desk, I paid the entrance fee of 100 pesos and walked the short distance to the cenote.

Cenote Azul turned out to be one of my favourite cenotes of my trip. It was open, spacious, and impossibly gorgeous. Look at this crystal-clear green water:

I spent about an hour walking around and taking photos of Cenote Azul, then continued on to Cenote Jardin del Eden. The entrances to the two cenotes are just a few metres apart from each other. At the Jardin del Eden ticket desk, I was shocked to find out that the entrance fee was 200 pesos, making it the most expensive cenote I have visited. However, since I was already there and had nothing else to do that day, I figured I might as well pay for it.

After paying and receiving my wristband, I walked down the rather long but absolutely lovely path to the cenote. I honestly felt like I was in a fairy tale while walking down this path.

After a few minutes, Cenote Jardin del Eden appeared before me. It was certainly beautiful and impressive, but personally I preferred Cenote Azul. I’m really not sure why Jardin del Eden is twice as expensive as Azul, and I don’t think it’s worth the price they charge. If you only visit one of these two, I would recommend Cenote Azul. Don’t get me wrong — Cenote Jardin del Eden is still a beauty! But why don’t I let you judge for yourself:

After a quick swim in Cenote Jardin del Eden, I dried myself off and walked back to the highway. I crossed the road and stood waiting for another colectivo to carry me back to Playa. After only about one minute, a van came and picked me up, and I was on my way back to town.

The following day I decided to hit the beach. The beach in central Playa isn’t that great (there’s barely any space on the sand to lay out a towel) so I walked 45 minutes north to Punta Esmeralda. The beach here is so much nicer than the one in downtown Playa.

The coolest thing about Punta Esmeralda is the cenote located right on the beach, with its crystal-clear water flowing straight into the ocean.

My original plan for the day was to find a spot to lay out my towel, go for a quick dip in the sea, then spend the day lying lazily on the sand. However, the beach in this part of town was so nice that it was just begging to be explored further, so I kept walking along the shoreline, keeping the water on my right. I kept telling myself that if I didn’t stop and find a place to lay out my towel soon, I wasn’t going to have any time for lazing on the beach. But I couldn’t bring myself to stop walking, since the scenery was so beautiful and each section of the beach was so different from the one before it. I ended up walking about two kilometres along the shore, bare feet in the water, before deciding to turn around and head back.

When I got back to Punta Esmeralda, I finally took the quick swim that I had been meaning to take. The water was so cool and refreshing, and the ocean floor as I waded in was smooth and sandy with hardly any rocks. Best of all, there was no seaweed! (I was very happy about that last point, after my unpleasant experience at the beach in Tulum.)

I had spent so much time walking along the beach that I didn’t have any time to lie down on the sand after I came out of the water. So I dried myself off, put my dress back on, and started walking back to my hostel.

I walked to and from Punta Esmeralda by way of 5th Avenue, which is Playa’s main pedestrian street. It’s lined with restaurants, boutique stores, artisans, and people selling tours. It was quite entertaining to stroll down this street and take everything in.

What’s more, as you get closer to Punta Esmeralda, you’ll see that 5th Avenue and the streets branching off it are lined with tons of incredible street art.

Playa

On my last day in Playa del Carmen, I paid a visit to Akumal Bay, which is located about halfway between Playa and Tulum. Akumal is famous for being home to sea turtles that you can swim and snorkel with. Unfortunately, I didn’t see a single sea turtle during my visit, but I still had a nice day at the beach there.

To get to Akumal, I once again walked to the colectivo station on Calle 2 at Avenida 15 and climbed into a van headed for Tulum. The drive to Akumal took about 30 minutes and cost 40 pesos. When my driver dropped me off, I had to cross the highway and then walk down a path for a few minutes before reaching the entrance to the beach. There I had to pay an entrance fee of 100 pesos to access the beach.

The beach in Akumal is nothing spectacular, but it is nice.

Even though I didn’t see any sea turtles in the water, I did see tons of fish. That is, I only saw one particular kind of fish, but I saw a lot of them. They were white in colour and quite sizeable, probably more than half a foot long and three or four inches tall. The water was so clear that I didn’t need a snorkel to see them. They were swimming all around me, so close that I easily could have reached out and touched them. In fact, a couple of times I even felt one of them hit me with its tail as it swam by. It was pretty cool. I’ve never seen so many fish while swimming in the ocean.

Overall, Playa del Carmen was cool and I had a good time there. Since it’s so close to Tulum, most of the places you will visit on day trips from Playa are the same places that you can easily visit from Tulum. I preferred the vibe in Tulum more than the vibe in Playa (it’s more chill and less touristy), but both places have their charms.

The next and final stop on my Mexico trip is one of the biggest tourist destinations in the world: the one-and-only white-sand beach paradise of Cancun!

6 Days in Tulum, Mexico

The sixth stop on my Mexico trip was the coastal city of Tulum, which is part of the Mayan Riviera in the state of Quintana Roo. The city is known for its bohemian, hippie-ish vibe, which was apparent to me as soon as I stepped off the bus. It’s a very laid-back, take-it-slow kind of place. That suited me just fine. I was looking forward to a bit of relaxation and beach time after all the day-tripping I had just done in Merida.

Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to get my relaxation on as soon as I arrived in Tulum, due to a slightly stressful occurrence that happened on my first day. After settling into my hostel, walking around a little, and eating a nice meal at a restaurant, I set out to find an ATM where I could replenish my nearly-depleted stock of pesos. I found a bank with a row of ATMs inside, and used one of them to withdraw some cash. An hour or so later, back at my hostel, I realized that I didn’t have my debit card on me anymore. I must have been so distracted with counting the cash that came out of the ATM that I forgot to take my card out of the machine.

I got up early the next morning and asked the extremely helpful girl working reception at my hostel to write a note for me in Spanish explaining what happened. I took the note to the bank as soon as it opened at 8:30 and showed it to a teller there. I was told I would have to come back later that day after the operator had come to check inside the machine. So there was nothing I could do at that point except to go ahead with my original plan for the day, which was to visit the Tulum ruins and then head to the beach.

Even though I felt like I had already seen more than enough Mayan ruins in Mexico, the ruins in Tulum (entrance fee: 70 pesos) were still high on my list because of their picturesque location. They’re situated high up on a windswept cliff overlooking the turquoise sea. It’s a very pretty sight.

Tulum

Most people rent bicycles to visit the Tulum ruins, since they’re located about four kilometres from the town centre. I decided to walk there instead, not only to save a bit of money, but also to avoid the hassle of trying to find a place to park and lock up a bike. Plus, riding a bike always hurts my ass. I never rent a bike to go somewhere that’s within an hour’s walking distance.

After spending an hour wandering among the ruins, I decided it was time to head to the beach. Luckily, the beach in Tulum is a short walk away from the ruins. I entered the beach at Playa Santa Fe and continued walking south to Playa Paraiso, where I laid out my towel on the powdery white sand in front of the turquoise water. Paraiso indeed.

Unfortunately, Playa Paraiso did have one major problem when I visited: tons of nasty seaweed floating in the water, brushing up against me while I was trying to swim. It totally ruined the experience of being in the water, feeling that gross seaweed all over me while I was trying to enjoy a refreshing dip in the ocean. It was kind of like eating something delicious but being unable to enjoy it because there’s a hair in your mouth.

Anyway, it was still nice to cool down in the ocean, even though I didn’t stay in as long as I would have if the seaweed hadn’t been there. After my swim I spent some time lying on the beach and getting properly burnt on the backs of my arms.

After leaving the beach I walked back to the bank to inquire about my debit card again. Bad news: They checked the machine and hadn’t found it. Oh well. At least I had the comfort of knowing that nobody else could use it without knowing my PIN!

The next day I went for another long walk, this time to visit two different cenotes. The first one, Cenote Calavera, is located about four kilometres from the town centre. When I arrived at the entrance to the cenote, I was treated to a bit of a rude surprise in the form of a 100-peso entrance fee. I had naively assumed that cenotes were free to visit, so I was kind of annoyed that I had to pay such a steep price to look at a small swimming hole. However, since I had already walked so far, I sucked it up and paid the fee.

After a short walk down a path, Cenote Calavera appeared before me. It was pretty cool, for sure, but it was quite small, too. You couldn’t actually go in and walk around, since the ladder led directly into the water. I don’t think it was worth 100 pesos, but it was a cool place to take pictures.

After Cenote Calavera, I continued a couple more kilometres down the road until I arrived at Tulum’s most famous and most popular cenote: the Grand Cenote. This one had an even more exorbitant entrance fee: 180 pesos! I paid up while grumbling inwardly about how unexpectedly expensive this day trip had been. At least I hadn’t spent anything on transportation!

When I set eyes on the Grand Cenote, I immediately understood why it’s so popular. It’s huge, with lots of space for swimming in the turquoise water. It even has dark, bat-filled caves to explore, and an area for turtles that’s off-limits to swimmers. I hadn’t brought my bathing suit because I didn’t realize how cool the Grand Cenote was going to be. I thought I would be content to just snap some photos and then leave. But as I watched everyone else swimming in the clear water, exploring all the secret caves that were inaccessible to me, I felt like I was really missing out. It looked like it would have been so much fun to jump into the water and swim around.

My fourth day in Tulum was pretty cool. A German girl and two Canadian guys whom I had met a couple nights earlier invited me to come with them on a day trip. They were renting a car to visit the ruins in Coba and three nearby cenotes. I jumped at the opportunity, since I don’t drive myself and therefore wouldn’t be able to visit these particular cenotes on my own.

The four of us rented a car in the morning (700 pesos for 24 hours) and set out for Coba. I think it took us about 45 minutes to drive from Tulum to the entrance of the ruins, where we paid the entrance fee of 70 pesos each.

I enjoyed the ruins in Coba less than the ones at Teotihuacan or Monte Alban, but more than the famous ones at Chichen Itza. The Coba ruins are spread out over a large area, so we spent a lot of our time just walking between each one. The walk is quite nice though; the ruins are located in the jungle and the path is completely shaded by trees, so we didn’t get too hot.

The main attraction of the Coba ruins is a large pyramid that you can climb. The steps are quite steep, so there’s a rope to hang onto while you’re precariously making your way up or down. From the top of the pyramid, all you can see is treetops, but it’s quite a nice view regardless.

After our visit to Coba we got back into the car and headed towards the cenotes. We visited three that are all located within a couple kilometres of each other: Cenote Tamcach-ha, Cenote Choo-ha, and Cenote Multun-ha. It cost us 165 pesos per person to visit all three. They were all quite different, but each one was amazing. Luckily this time I brought my bathing suit so that I could swim. It was my first time ever swimming in a cenote, and it was such a cool experience. (And there was no seaweed!)

Here are some photos of the first cenote we went to, Tamcach-ha. Amazing, right?

The second cenote we visited, Choo-Ha, was my favourite of the three. Seriously, how cool is this place?

The last cenote, Multun-ha, was my least favourite of the three. It was still super cool, but there were no rocks to sit on and there was nowhere to walk but the dock. Like I said though, still super cool!

Day 5 in Tulum brought more walking and more cenotes for me. I walked to two cenotes that are both located just off the highway leading into Tulum, right across the street from each other: Cenote Cristal and Cenote Escondido. I paid 120 pesos to visit both of them. They were completely different than the three cenotes near Coba that I had visited the day before. The ones near Coba are all located deep underground, lit by artificial light and accessed via long, winding staircases. Cenotes Cristal and Escondido, on the other hand, are beautiful pools located at ground level and completely open to the sun.

Here are some pictures of the lovely Cenote Cristal:

Cenote Escondido was just as dreamy as Cenote Cristal:

My last day in Tulum was spent once again swimming in the ocean and lying on the sand at Playa Paraiso. There were still tons of cenotes and other beautiful places around the city left to be explored, but I was trying to curb my spending. My day trips around Tulum had been on the expensive side, so for my last day I wanted to do something that wouldn’t cost any money.

I was pleasantly surprised by how little seaweed there was in the water, compared to the first time I had swum at Playa Paraiso. There was a little bit floating around, but it was totally bearable. I must have gone on a good day, or just picked the right section of the beach!

To sum up, I had a wonderful time in Tulum. There is so much natural beauty and so many incredible things to see and do in the surrounding areas. I noticed that most people at my hostel stayed considerably longer than the usual three or four nights that backpackers tend to spend in a city. I can totally see why — I would have loved to stay longer in Tulum myself, if only the cenotes were a little cheaper to visit! As it was, I packed up my bags after my sixth night, bid farewell to the awesome people I had befriended at my hostel, and boarded a bus to my next sunny destination: Playa del Carmen!

6 Days in Merida, Mexico

I arrived in Merida, the capital of Yucatan state, at 2:00 p.m. after a 19-hour bus ride from San Cristobal de las Casas. (Yes, 19 hours. It was supposed to be 17.5 hours, but it ended up being 19. Oyyyy.) As is usually the case on my first day in a city, by the time I had settled into my hostel, there wasn’t much time to do anything except grab a meal and walk to the city’s main square, the Plaza Grande, to stroll around and take a few pictures.

The next day I took a day trip to Chichen Itza, the most famous Mayan ruins in Mexico and one of the new Seven Wonders of the World. I walked to the second-class bus terminal (right next to the first-class ADO bus terminal) and caught the 8:00 a.m. bus. (Buses leave every hour on the hour, and the trip costs 105 pesos each way.) The bus arrived at Chichen Itza at 11:00. I reluctantly paid the exorbitant entrance fee of 254 pesos (!) and stepped into the park.

After having previously seen the pyramids at Teotihuacan and Monte Alban, Chichen Itza failed to wow me. Of course the ruins are historically fascinating and all (if you’re a history buff, which I am not), but you can’t even climb the main pyramid, like you can at the other sites. Not that the view would have been that great at Chichen Itza anyway, since everything is spread out over such a vast area. So instead of there being a viewpoint that provides a cohesive, panoramic view of the site as a whole, you can only walk around at ground level and look at each ruin individually. This means that I wasn’t able to get any really Instagram-worthy photos out of my visit — just pictures of each individual building. And after a while, all of the ruins started looking the same. My lack of enthusiasm for Chichen Itza wasn’t helped by the grey skies and constant rain sprinkling down all day, but I don’t think I would have liked the place that much even if the sun had been shining. For me, it was one of the most overrated places in Mexico.

Anyway, here are the most interesting photos I was able to take there:

The next day, I went on a day trip that I enjoyed a lot more than Chichen Itza. I went to the nearby town of Izamal, also known as “the Yellow City.” Why it’s called that is obvious as soon as you arrive in the town: All the buildings there are painted in the same vibrant, mustard-yellow hue. It’s a wonderful place to stroll through the streets and take photos.

Getting to Izamal from Merida is cheap, quick, and easy. I took a colectivo from Calle 65 between Calles 52 and 54. The ride only took one hour and cost 35 pesos each way. The driver dropped us off right near the centre of town.

The most important building you’ll see in Izamal is the convent, the Convento San Antonio de Padua. It’s only about a minute’s walk from where the colectivo drops you off, so it’s impossible to miss it. I spent a good chunk of time taking photos here.

The second-most noteworthy structure in Izamal is the pyramid known as Kinich Kakmo. There are a few Mayan ruins scattered around the town centre, but Kinich Kakmo is the largest. And guess what? Unlike the famous pyramid at Chichen Itza, you can actually climb this one. There’s a nice view of the town from the top.

I spent about two-and-a-half hours exploring the beautiful streets of Izamal, then took another colectivo back to Merida. It was a great day out, made even better by perfect weather (the polar opposite of the previous day’s weather). The air was warm and the skies were as sunny as the paint on Izamal’s walls. As I strolled through the vibrant streets, I thought to myself that it must be impossible to be unhappy in such a pretty town. I felt completely rejuvenated after my disappointment of the previous day.

On my fourth day in Merida, I decided to check out Progreso Beach, which is the closest beach to the city and the easiest to reach by public transportation. I took one of the frequent buses (apparently there’s one every 10 minutes) from the AutoProgreso bus terminal near the city centre. The ride costs 21 pesos one-way or 38 pesos for a return trip. Travel time between the two places is one hour.

A fun fact about Progreso is that it has the longest pier in the world. It’s almost four miles long!

There’s not a lot to do in Progreso besides lying on the beach, so after taking some pictures of the pier and strolling along the malecon for a while, I headed back to the bus station and took another bus back to Merida.

When I got back to Merida, I had to go to Walmart to pick up a couple things. I walked there by way of the Paseo Montejo, which is a wide, tree-lined avenue dotted with monuments and lined with beautiful old buildings. Even if you’re not headed anywhere in particular like I was, the Paseo Montejo is a lovely street for a scenic stroll.

The next day I took a really cool day trip to the cenotes near the town of Cuzama. To get there, I walked to the spot where the colectivos to Cuzama depart, on Calle 67 between Calles 50 and 52. I found a colectivo bound for Cuzama and waited about half an hour for it to fill up with passengers so that we could depart. The ride to Cuzama took one hour and cost 27 pesos.

When I got out of the colectivo in Cuzama, I saw a line-up of motorcycles with their front wheels removed and with carts attached where the front wheel should have been. They were kind of like the tuk-tuks you see all over Southeast Asia, except that they were built so that the passengers ride in front of the driver instead of behind. When I disembarked from the colectivo, I mentioned the word “cenotes” to the driver to make sure I was getting off at the right spot. He said something to one of the drivers of the tuk-tuk-like vehicles, and then indicated to me that I should go with that driver. So I got into the tuk-tuk (that’s what I’ll call it from now on) and we drove a few kilometres until we came to a little railway where a bunch of horse-drawn carts were waiting. I paid my tuk-tuk driver 50 pesos and then climbed into one of the horse-drawn carts. The driver of the cart didn’t speak a word of English, but he explained to me in slow, clear Spanish that the ride to the cenotes and back would cost 400 pesos. I had known beforehand that this was the cost of a cart, but I wished I had tried to find two or three people at my hostel to accompany me, so that we could have split the cost. Ah well. I paid the 400 pesos and was on my way to the cenotes with my own private guide (whom I couldn’t understand most of the time) and a horse pulling us along the tracks.

The first two cenotes my guide brought me to were honestly nothing special. The first one was called Cenote Tzapakal. It was little more than a small hole in the ground filled with water that you could only access by climbing down a ladder. It was too dark to take any good pictures there.

The second cenote we visited, Cenote Santa Cruz, was slightly more impressive than Cenote Tzapakal. It was only a few steps away from the former. This one was a little bigger than the first one, but it was also too dark to take any good pictures.

The third and final cenote my guide took me to was a short drive away from the other two, and considerably more impressive than the others. It was called Cenote Chelentun, and it was much more spacious than the first two. The water was so clear and so blue. There were two other people here who had come via another horse-drawn cart.

After my visit to the three cenotes, my guide took me back to where the tuk-tuk had dropped me off. After less than a minute of looking around, I saw my driver coming toward me down the street. He stopped beside me, I jumped into the cart, and we headed back to where the colectivo had dropped me off in the morning. When we got there I paid the driver another 50 pesos, and hopped into the colectivo that was already waiting on the street. In about 10 minutes, I was on my way back to Merida.

I wholeheartedly recommend a trip to the Cuzama cenotes if you can find two or three other people to go with. (The horse-drawn carts hold up to four people.) I can’t recommend that you go alone like I did because it’s so expensive to have a cart all to yourself. This was the most expensive day trip I have done so far on this trip, and it wasn’t the most enjoyable or the most interesting. If you split the cost with two or three other people, then I think it would totally be worth it, but 554 pesos (the grand total I paid, including the colectivo, the tuk-tuk, and the horse-drawn cart) is too much to spend on your own just to visit a few swimming holes. That being said, my trip to the Cuzama cenotes was definitely interesting and different from any other excursion I have been on so far in Mexico. I’m glad to have had the experience.

On my last day in Merida, I took my own advice that I had failed to follow the previous day. I found two girls at my hostel who wanted to go to the Celestun Biosphere Reserve to see the flocks of flamingos there. I was so happy to find other people who wanted to go there because a boat ride through the Celestun Biosphere Reserve was actually the #1 thing I wanted to do while in Merida, but I didn’t want to go alone because the boat ride costs 1500 pesos. I could have gone by myself and just hoped to find people at the dock that I could share a boat with, but I didn’t want to risk having no one else show up. Obviously I wasn’t going to pay 1500 pesos for a boat ride, no matter how glorious the flamingos were.

The two girls and I walked to the second-class bus station in Merida and caught the 11:00 a.m. bus to Celestun. (Buses leave every hour on the hour.) It cost us each 60 pesos for the 2.5-hour trip. Luckily, we met three more people on the bus who were also planning to take the boat ride, so we made a deal to all go together. That way, each of us would only have to pay 250 pesos.

When we got off the bus in Celestun, we hunted down a taxi to shuttle us the short distance to the docks. When we arrived, we were given some extremely disappointing news by the lady selling the boat tickets: We would not see many flamingos on the boat ride, due to the water levels being too high for them to stick around in the area. We were pretty upset by this news, naturally, but we had to still take the boat ride since we had already come so far.

Just as we were about to get into the boat, we spotted something in the water that partially made up for our disappointment regarding the flamingos. A crocodile! Just lying there next to the dock, about a foot away from our feet! At first we didn’t think it was real, but a couple of my companions said they saw it open and close its eyes. (I didn’t see that, and I’m still not entirely convinced the animal was alive. Not only did I not see it make the slightest movement the whole time I was standing in front of it snapping photos, but when we returned from our boat ride an hour later, it was still floating there! It hadn’t moved a single inch. I’m not in the least familiar with normal crocodile behaviour, and I guess it could have just been sleeping, but that seemed strange to me. I wanted to throw something at it, to see it make some kind of movement, but something told me that was not a good idea.)

As the ticket lady had predicted, our boat ride was sadly lacking in flamingo sightings. When I had left my hostel that morning, I had had visions of seeing thousands of flamingos standing in the water and soaring through the sky, dazzling my vision and transforming the sky into an endless pink blur. Instead, guess how many of these fuschia beauties we saw during the hour we spent on the water? Seven. We saw exactly seven flamingos. Not only that, but we didn’t even get close enough to them to take a single decent picture. I was tremendously disappointed.

Merida

You probably can’t tell, but there are two flamingos flying in this picture.

Even though we didn’t see many flamingos, the boat ride was still nice. We saw many different kinds of birds, including tons of pelicans.

The best part of the ride was when we drove through a tunnel that wound through an amazing mangrove forest.

There was also another mangrove forest where a boardwalk had been built. Here we were allowed to disembark from the boat and walk around for a few minutes.

After our boat ride was over, we took another taxi back to the town centre. Four of us had a nice dinner at a restaurant on the beach before taking the bus back to Merida.

We finally arrived back in Merida at 8:00 p.m. after a long, exhausting, and disappointing day. Oh well. Travel always has its ups and downs. Every day can’t be amazing, now can it? And hey, at least we saw a crocodile (that may or may not have been dead)! Oh, and I didn’t have to pay 1500 pesos for the boat! Thank God — that would have been the rip-off of the century.

On the whole, I had a good time in Merida. There are tons of great day trip options in the surrounding areas, so I never ran out of things to do during the six days I spent in the city. Some of the day trips I took from Merida were disappointing, yes, but that was mainly due to unfortunate circumstances or poor planning on my part. I’m sure most people who take the same day trips I described in this post enjoy them a lot more than I did. Anyway, by the time I left Merida, I was more than ready to spend some time relaxing on a beach in my next destination: Tulum!