Seven Cenotes in Yucatán

Last month I travelled to Yucatán with a friend. It’s hard to pick highlights when a trip is as cool as this one was, but I won’t even hesitate to say the cenotes were the definite highlight. Actually, I think it’s safe to say that they were one of the most memorable adventures of my life.

My friend and I stayed in Mérida, the capital of Yucatán, and had previously looked for cool spots not too far away. On our arrival to the hostel (a place I can’t recommend enough called Nómadas), we got to chat a bit with one of the guys at reception. He mentioned that the prior weekend he had been to Homún, a small town not too far from the city, not a particularly charming place, but surrounded by at least 10 beautiful cenotes. We asked him for directions and he kindly explained to us how to get there.

I had been to several cenotes in Yucatán, but nothing prepared me for what we’d see in Homún. To start, Homún is a very small and unremarkable town. Its main economical activity used to be the production of organic fibers used for hats. Sadly, most hats today are made out of plastic, which means most people in Homún are unemployed today and turning to tourism for profit. When we arrived to the main square we were met by dozens of moto-taxis (basically motorcycles which have a bench attached to their front) operated by locals. We were offered a whole day of driving around the cenotes for $200 MXN, which is less than $10 US. We were two but you can fit four people for the same price.

Our driver’s name was Roberto and he was very kind and knowledgeable. He told us a bit of the history of Homún and how cenotes have turned into a new currency, something I find quite alarming and sad. Whoever finds a cenote in their property can choose to make it into a public attraction if the environmental authorities approve. Although the cenotes we visited were owned by native Mayan people who understand and respect the delicate environments they are and their interconnection with underground currents, I’m afraid they might be overcrowded soon.

We visited seven cenotes that day. Every time time I got a first glance at a cenote I though that one must be the coolest, and every time I was wrong. They were all wonderful and different. Among the ones we visited were Canun Chen, Baal Mil, Hool Kosom, Cheel Paa and Tres Oches. These cenotes and two others form a natural ring around the town, so it’s quite easy to find your way around once you spot one. We basically had them to ourselves and it was a magical experience. If you arrive before 11.00 am they’ll probably be empty.

Some cenotes, like Canun Chen, have ropes tied to the roof so you can go all Tarzan when jumping in the water; others, like Tres Oches, are basically holes in the ground surrounded by the greenest vegetation; others are way darker, like Hool Kosom—which means swallow’s cave— are darker and offer you amazing sights of wildlife like bats and swallows. They’re all wonderful in their own way. Also, swimming in a cenote is a unique experience: the water is always cool and clear, fish swim around you and there is something definitely magical—spiritual, eerie— about the quiet around you. This was a day I will never forget and I can’t wait to travel to Yucatán again soon.

Hool Kosom

Have you ever swum in a cenote?

Walking Mexico City

Let’s say you’re in the city for a day and want to walk as much as possible.

Last Friday I got to show a foreign friend around Mexico City. She arrived on Thursday afternoon and we would leave for the coast on Saturday morning, so we only had a whole day to look around. It is impossible to get to see everything even when you live there, so I just tried to incorporate a bit of everything into the day: museums, food, architecture, nature.

Moreover, all these places would have to be reachable by foot. I obviously had to choose one area of the city, and to be honest it wasn’t that hard: Polanco/Chapultepec, to the north, is where many of my favourite places are and it’s far less crowded than the centre. I have to say that the main reason I wanted to walk was budget (no car, Uber is expensive and traffic is terrible, plus I don’t really feel safe using public transport in Mexico City anymore). In the end we walked about 7 miles and had a great time. This is what we did we went.

Brunch at Ojo de Agua, Masaryk

First things first. We started our day in one of the fanciest areas of the city, but in a place that was both affordable and delicious. Ojo de Agua combines a boho vibe with folkloric elements, and offers a healthy, chic (avocado toast kind of place) menu with a hint of traditional cuisine. It really is Mexican cuisine with a twist. The restaurant is beautiful, decorated like a market, with a comfy, spacious terrace you won’t want to leave.

Museo Jumex

The Jumex Museum is not far from Masaryk and it currently hosts a Marcel Duchamp + Jeff Koons expo that is pretty… photogenic (sorry, I’m not much for contemporary art). The entrance is free for students (and not very expensive if you’re not) and you get to walk along three floors of artworks. The Jumex Museum is famous for its daring expositions and its wonderful museography. If this is too hipster for you, the Museo Rufino Tamayo would be my second option: it’s also beautiful in its architecture and holds some of the most interesting pieces by Mexican artists. It’s also on the way to our next stop.

Walk along Polanquito and Lincoln Park

Polanquito is one of my favourite parts of the city. Its beautiful houses turned into restaurants and cafés, its art galleries, boutique stores. This is the part where you get yourself some coffe. Some personal faves: Joselo and Biscottino. Get it to go and enjoy it while walking through Lincoln Park towards Paseo de la Reforma.

Paseo de la Reforma

Walking along Mexico City’s most famous avenue is always rewarding. Depending on the season you’ll see different beautiful gardens featuring seasonal flowers. This time we walked from the National Auditorium towards Chapultepec Castle, our next stop.

Chapultepec Castle

Must you go here? Yes. To get there you’ll enter Chapultepec Forest, one of the last green lungs of the metropolis. Then you’ll walk up a small hill and come to the castle. It may not be impressive in size, but you’ll find its stairs and balconies pretty amusing. Its gardens are also very pretty and the views of the city are wonderful.

Paseo de la Reforma II

Chapultepec was really the last stop on my list, but I could not let my friend leave the city without a picture in front of the Angel of Independence, the city’s icon. So we left the forest and continued walking along Paseo de la Reforma. We were lucky because there was a flower festival going on, so the whole boulevard was covered in flowers and other plants.

The Angel was our last stop. I have to confess we didn’t walk home from there, we took an Uber. However, if you’re already at the Angel of Independence and you don’t feel like going home yet, you can take another 20 minute walk towards la Roma and end your day at my favourite restaurant in the city, Mog Bistro. From there you’ll find plenty to do since the area comes alive at night.

I am amazed at the many faces of Mexico City; I’m also surprised at how much our means of transport affect the way we perceive a place. I discovered many things in familiar places, I saw curious ensembles of people, squirrels climbing bizarre surfaces.

Have you been to Mexico City? What do you think of it? Also, let me know if you find any of these recommendations useful!

Hidden Corners of Mexico City

About a year ago, when I was still living in Mexico City, a friend and I found ourselves in what seemed to be a small town in the middle of the city. It is not surprising to see this kind of thing here—think, for example, of Coyoacán or Tlalpan, actual towns that were at some point devoured by the metropolis and are now part of it—. What I found surprising was that this place was so close to where I lived, somewhere nearby the Parque Hundido, a very famous park surrounded by tall buildings in the Del Valle neighbourhood. One minute we were walking in the city, and suddenly we found ourselves in a cobblestone street, in a small plaza with a seemingly very old church, a fountain and barely any people.

There was, too, a beautiful, small, quirky bookshop in which we spent almost an hour. Then we left, met some other friends back in the city and I forgot about the church and the bookshop. That is until I wanted to find them again and I couldn’t. I didn’t know the name of the church or the bookshop and didn’t come across them while walking around the park.

Now I no longer live in Mexico City, but I haven’t managed to move all my stuff, so I find myself making monthly trips in which I try to fit as many things as I can in my car. Last month I used one of those trips as an excuse to go on a hike nearby. On my way back, the other hikers dropped me at a gas station in Mixcoac, which meant only a 20 or 30-minute walk home. I guess I was overconfident about knowing my way in the city because at some point I got lost in a series of streets bearing the names of famous painters—Rodin, Millet, Perugino, Carracci—. I knew I was not far because the names were familiar and pride prevented me from using Google maps. And suddenly, just around a very modern, normal-looking corner, there it was: the plaza with the church and the bookshop.

As I saw it, I was walking in the city and then I was not. I was somewhere else altogether. To one side, there was an old church surrounded by palm trees, its roof peeling off, its bells in a bad state, ivy climbing up its walls, squirrels perched on its bell towers. To the other side, across the cobblestone street, there was a small plaza with a fountain, a couple of (old) people sitting in its benches and a few, colonial-looking houses behind (one of those was the bookshop!). This time I made a mental note for I had no time to stay: the street was Rodin, just a few blocks behind the Parque Hundido.

And yesterday I went back, this time knowing where I was going, sure that I could find it. And I did. The church is called Parroquia de San Juan Apóstol y Evangelista (Parrish of Saint John, Apostle and Evangelist) and the bookshop is named José María Luis Mora (a 19th-century historian). The plaza is called Gómez Farías after an 18th-century politician. I couldn’t help thinking how cool it is that everything there is named after obscure characters: a historian no one has heard of, one of the only Mexican presidents no one hates because no one remembers him and, let’s put it this way, not one of the most famous apostles.

To get there I just walked past the Parque Hundido—which means “sunken park” because the park is actually in a hole. It’s famous because it’s pretty and because Octavio Paz spent his afternoons there. Or perhaps because Roberto Bolaño said he did in his novel The Savage Detectives. Right behind the park, going East, there’s a strange intersection, and turning left on Rodin street you just have to walk a few yards until you find the plaza. Yesterday there were only three old men scattered on the benches and the church was closed. It is a small miracle to find an empty place in a city like this, so I sat there a while, listening to the birds and wondering how many hidden gems like this are in the city. It was like stepping into a time machine, this place where every building was named after forgotten heroes and thinkers, where everybody around seemed to be old and even the cars parked around were “vintage”. I always find it amusing how little I know of Mexico City.

Booking.com (function(d, sc, u) { var s = d.createElement(sc), p = d.getElementsByTagName(sc)[0]; s.type = ‘text/javascript’; s.async = true; s.src = u + ‘?v=’ + (+new Date()); p.parentNode.insertBefore(s,p); })(document, ‘script’, ‘//aff.bstatic.com/static/affiliate_base/js/flexiproduct.js’);

My latest posts:

Processing…
Success! You're on the list.

Cartagena de Indias

I arrived in Cartagena with a small group of friends one afternoon in July. The weather was incredibly hot and incredibly humid. As our uber approached the AirBnB, the first look we had of the city pretty much summarized our later experience: Cartagena is a coloful, lively town filled with music, delicious food and kind people.

DSC_0481
A typical street in Cartagena

The Walled City

The wall that used to enclose the city during the colonial period now surrounds the historic part of the city, the neighbourhood of San Diego. Here are the oldest buildings and most famous landmarks, and the wall itself is a useful thing to be guided by. On our first day we did some walking around the wall and some exploring of the main square. You’ll find that any place you’d like to see in Cartagena can be walked to, which is amazing. At night, the best places to go to in San Diego are around the Clock Tower, an unmissable yellow building in Plaza de la Paz.

 

Still in the old town, to the north, there’s Gabriel García Márquez’s house, which is a museum now, and a bit further is the Plaza de las Bóvedas, where you can find a lot of colombian handicrafts and souvenirs, as well as the famous, colorful coffee carts that go around the city. In San Diego you’ll also see many horse-driven carriages, which I found really heartbreaking. The weather in Cartagena was around 35ºC, and to see these horses take groups of as much as six people along the winding streets, trying to avoid traffic, was just too much. Considering they’re only used by tourists, I think it’s fair to say that it’s visitors responsibility to stop this kind of abuse.

Anyway, the houses in San Diego are something to see, too. They combine some colonial architecture with the bright colours of the Colombian flag. Most balconies are filled with colorful flowers and the paint of most buildings is bright and lively. If you want to listen to some traditional music, you should go to Plaza Bolívar during the weekend, and take a look at a real “chumpeta” band. If you’re into it you could even dance, many people do. As our AirBnB was in San Diego, we pretty much walked anywhere inside the walls and to Getsemaní. No matter the hour, there was always music playing somewhere (mostly reggaetón) and some laughter can be heard in the distance.

 

 

The walled city is also where all the restaurants and shops are. On our last day we had an amazing breakfast at Mila Vargas, which is a bit expensive but delicious (Mila Vargas is, I understand, some sort of Colombian Martha Stewart, so no matter the hour, try the cakes!). Another food place I recommend is called Laguna Azul; it is not fancy at all and it’s not really in San Diego but in La Matuna. However, it has the best seafood I had in Cartagena and they fetch you any beer you want from the store next door. Try ceviche de camarón. If you’re into seafood (which I wasn’t much before going to Cartagena), you can also visit La Mulata, a very centric spot with very good food. Bear in mind though that most things are a bit expensive in the centre, as it is the most touristic area. Another thing everybody told us to do was to watch the sunset from Café del Mar (it’s not café, it’s a bar), which has tables with view to the sea. Unfortunately, July is the rainiest month there and the clouds would barely let us see the sun. It is a nice place though.

 

 

Getsemaní

Although San Diego is the “historic” neighbourhood of Cartagena (see, for example, the castle of San Felipe de Barajas which we never went to, but looks nice), the neighbourhood of Getsemaní was my favourite part of Cartagena.

 

Apparently, Getsemaní used to be one of the most dangerous areas in Cartagena. Now it is denfinitely the most popular one. If you want to take a tour with a local, be at Plaza de la Santísima Trinidad at 4.00 pm. The plaza is in front of a nice 17th century church with a bright yellow facade. Not very far from there, on Calle de San Juan, is Café del Mural, one of my favourite places in the city. If you sit outside you can have a look of the street, which is one of the most beautiful in Getsemaní. The walls are covered in steet art and there’s an art gallery nearby which hangs its paintings outside.

 

In general, Getsemaní is a wonderful place to be. You can just walk down the streets and there’s something to see, from quirky statues to majestic art on the walls, almost everywhere. It is a pretty safe neighbourhood too, and you’ll notice many people just go on about their business leaving their front doors open.

 

Playa Blanca

Although Cartagena is in the Caribbean, I was a bit disappointed to see that its beaches are not very pretty. In fact, not many people go there. The most beauiful beaches are not in the city but down south a bit, in a little peninsula that belongs to the National Park Corales del Rosario. Playa Blanca is there, but getting there was quite stressful. If I had to name the thing that I liked less about Colombia, it would be the peddlers. They’re everywhere and they insist a lot for tourist to buy their handicrafts, boat trips or whateever they’re selling.

If you approach the Muelle de los Pegasos, the port from which most small ships sail, you will be quickly surrounded by five people trying to sell you a boat trip to Islas del Rosario, a tour of the city, a ride to Playa Blanca and pretty much anything. Dealing with these people can be quite hard as they can even fight among themselves for a client. When we were there, out initial plan was to visit Islas del Rosario, but the trips offered seemed so overpriced and the people were so pushy that we called it quits.

So we decided to go to Playa Blanca instead. Taxis wanted to charge us 50 dollars, and an uber was only about 30. So we took an Uber. After all, it was just a one-hour ride. So far so good, we were all happy that our day trip wasn’t ruined. Until our Uber driver got lost. We ended up who knows where and the car could barely make it on the unpaved streets. At one point we had to get off the car for it to get out of a hole in the road. To this day I’m thankful our driver didn’t lose and just left us there.

Captura de pantalla 2018-09-25 a la(s) 14.32.31
Cartagena to Playa Blanca, ideally

After two very stressful hours we finally made it to Playa Blanca. If the peddlers in Cartagena were extra, the ones in Playa Blanca were scary. We hadn’t even gotten out of the car when a group of five or six young men started trying to rent us hammocks, chairs, offering us lunch, drinks. The followed us for about a kilometer along the beach, which is really beautiful but filled with restaurants and a bit crowded. Finally we gave in  and rented some chairs at one of the places they offered us, we left our stuff and swam a bit and everything was okay again.

Being in the ocean was better too because peddlers could not reach you there. As soon as we were sitting, people started coming to offer us massages (which I paid for), coconuts (which I bought) and jewelry (I resisted). Soon, however, it got late and we ordered lunch. This was, no kidding, the best food I had in Colombia (probably one of the best in my life too). We had a huge, fried sierra fish for three of us, as well as patacón (some kind of small cake made out of fried banana) and coconut rice with Águila beer. It was truly amazing. Most places in the coast serve this fish-patacón-rice dish, but this was by far the best. After this we just chilled and later it started raining. We swam in the rain and left Playa Blanca at around six pm, only to find Ubers did not come this far and most people were already gone. Also, we did not have towels. It was a funny day.

 

Playa Blanca is, in short, a great place if you got some willpower against peddlers and if you have some fresh fish for lunch. It was a very exciting day and, even if this was for the wrong reasons some of the time, one of the best of our Colombia trip. The beach there is a typical Caribbean beach: clear blue waters, palm trees and white sand. And in the end we did go to Rosario Islands, just for half a day to a place called Isla del Sol. Apparently most of the islands belong to private owners and you buy some sort of all-inclusive package for a day (transport, food, hotel facilities). I prefered Playa Blanca.

 

Have you been to Cartagena?

Holbox

On our third day in the Mayan Riviera, we drove north for two hours, from Playa del Carmen to a town called Chiquilá, to take a ferry to Holbox island (pronounced holbósh). Despite the island’s very recent popularity, we were a bit disapointed to see that a lot of people were going there, huge ferries going and coming every half hour or so. Nevertheless, we parked near the docks for only $50 mxn and got on the Holbox Express for $150 (each way). The trip takes about 30 minutes. We got decent seats on the top part and, were it not for the loud reggaetón music, it would have been an enjoyable ride.

DSC_0120
Holbox

I heard of Holbox some four years ago and that image stayed with me: a small haven in Quintana Roo the big hotels hadn’t spoiled yet. Perhaps it was so then. Now, even when there are no big hotels, there however many small fancy restaurants, beach clubs and small hotels. The unpaved streets and the fact that finding an ATM is pretty hard give the place some kind of deserted island vibe, but a look around the beach would shatter that perception. Holbox, however, is the perfect weekend getaway: bad phone service, quiet beaches by day, plenty of coffee and gelato places and a growing number of environmentally-conscious tours by boat to see the whales, dolphins and sharks.

DSC_0102

Holbox has one of the most beautiful beaches too, the only one were sargasso was not a problem. You could walk towards the sea for about 300 meters and the crystal clear water would barely reach your knees. For the same reason, the waters is a bit warmer than at the mainland, but by morning is good for paddling and kayaking. The island is the perfect Caribbean location: palm trees, snow-white sand, clear blue sky and an even clearer sea. The streets and plazas of the town are covered in urban art with Mexican motifs and so there’s plenty to see both at the beach and in the town.

DSC_0107

DSC_0110

We hired some (overpriced) hammocks at the beach and left our stuff there while we swam, we read a bit and found a place to eat as the afternoon approached. As we did not spend the night there, we had to take one of the last ferries at 6:00 pm, but anyway that was enough time to take a look around, chill and swim.

For lunch we went to a place called Mandarina, which belongs to the hotel Casa las Tortugas. The food was amazing and not so expensive, the location is perfect as it is right in front of the beach. The beachside restaurants and bars reminded me a bit of Tulum in style and vibes: Holbox is one of the most relaxing places I’ve been to, and people there are somehow so chill and fashionable at the same time, everybody walks or rides a bike along the sand-covered streets and the biggest vehicles around are golf cars and quads.

All in all, Holbox was one of my favorite places in Quintana Roo, I just wish he had stayed longer there.

Have you been to Holbox? What are your thoughts on it?

Tulum

During our road trip along Quintana Roo and Yucatán, one of the first stops was Tulum. The archeological site of Tulum, which means “enclosure” or “wall”, was a very important city for the ancient Mayans, functioning too as an observatory. Now, the ruins of Tulum are inside a natural reserve, not far from the modern town of Tulum and the hotel zone— the whole area goes by the same name.

The ruins

DSC_0036 2.jpg

Our first stop in Tulum, after a one-hour drive from Playa del Carmen was, of course, the ruins. The entrance to the ruins. We parked in the archeological site for $100 mxn, then we walked through some kind of shopping/food court area, and finally made it to the entrance. You can either queue to buy the tickets from a booth or buy them from a ticket machine, which is faster. We were there on a Thursday in July, and even when there were many people, it was nowhere near as crowded as some other places in the Mayan Riviera. The tickets cost $70 mxn per person.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Once there, it took about three hours to walk around the ruins. The day was sunny and very hot, and there are not many shadowy spots, so water and appropiate clothes for walking are a must. Although they are not the most impressive Mayan ruins, they are the only ones that overlook the sea. The sights of The Castle, the most famous building in the archeological zone, facing the sea, are unbeatable. The variety of the vegetation is also a distinctive trait of Tulum, because the ruins are surrounded by grass, palm trees and other tropical plants. Also, iguanas abound in the area and they’re not afraid to go near people.

For those interested in history and prehispanic culture, a guided tour might be the best option, although for me it was enough to read some information about the uses of each structure from the signs on the grass.

DSC_0042

DSC_0565
Another iguana

DSC_0017

Touristic area

About 15 minutes away by car from the archeological zone, there is Tulum’s most famous area, the hotel zone along coastal highway 15. This is really just a narrow street along which there are shops, restaurants, cafés and hotels on both sides. Most of the restaurants sell organic food and many of the hotels are small, eco-friendly huts. Finding a good place to have lunch or dinner is just difficult because there are too many options. However, when it comes to dessert, I believe you should go to Matcha Mama, a nice hawaiian-like hut that has one of the best matcha ice-creams I’ve had. They also have matcha tea in different presentations, as well as other dishes and juices.

The hotel zone in Tulum was one of my favourite places in Quintana Roo. Not because of the shops or restaurants, but because of the vibes. Everybody, locals and tourists alike, seemed chill and friendly. Highway 15, surrounded by palm trees and surfboards is a small hippie paradise, specially tranquil during sunset. However, it is one of the most expensive areas in the state, so be prepared for overpriced meals. Also, as much of the Riviera Maya this time of the year, Tulum’s beaches are being badly affected by sargasso, a recent problem in the Caribbean, caused by climate change.

DSC_0586
Tulum sign right outside the archeological site.

DSC_0620
Turquoise sea, sargasso.

DSC_0085
Chill vibes at sunset

Teotihuacán

In Ecatepec, Estado de México, one hour and a half away from the busy Mexico City, are the ruins for the ancient city of Teotihuacán, a political and religious centre for the teotihuacanos. The city is said to have been found abandoned by the aztecs, who claimed it as theirs and probably used it as a political centre too, though much about this ruins remains a mistery.

Last weekend I went to see (and climb) the pyramids for the third time. Despite being rain season, the morning was sunny and warm; if you visit Teotihuacan, I definitely recommend starting early, since there are barely any shadowy spots and the afternoon sun can be intense.

The pyramids are located in Ecatepec, and you can get there easily by bus or car, as there is a road that connects the city with the archeological site. Once there, the best thing is to start at gate 5, right behind the Pyramid of the Sun, and make your way through the Avenue of the Dead towards the Pyramid of the Moon. You can climb both pyramids, but as the best view is from the top of the Pyramid of the Sun, I recommend leaving that for the end.

IMG_2915
On our way to the Pyramid of the Moon.

IMG_2922IMG_3123

View from the Pyramid of the Moon.

IMG_3130

We were in Teotihuacan on a Saturday in July, although it might sound like a bad idea to go there on a weekend during the summer holiday, there was not many people around until like 1.00 pm. I have been here on October too and honestly I didn’t notice much difference in the weather.

Overall, Teotihuacan is a must visit if you’re in Mexico City. Walking around and climbing both pyramids won’t take more than 3 hours, counting many picture stops, and visiting the site museum at the end will provide you with more information about the ancient city. There are guides you can hire at the entrance; it might be a bit expensive if you’re not in a big group, but a good idea if you’re interested in prehispanic culture and would like to know more about the pyramids that meet the eye.

For more information you could also check out Teotihuacan: An Experiment in Living by Esther Pasztory, which incorporates some of the latest theories on where the teotihuacanos came from and what happened to them, as well as speculations on what their mural paintings and architecture might have mean back then.

Have you been to Teotihuacan? What did you think of it?

My Scottish Road Trip

Last year, after a brief time in Ireland, some friends and I took a plane to Glasgow to start a ten-day trip that would forever transform everything I thought I knew about traveling. Although I had loved Ireland, a couple of bad experiences had dimmed my excitement for the Scottish adventure— what if the mountains were not as impressing as I imagined them? Anyhow we made our way north, leaving behind rows of green hills and castles, to come across… more green hills and castles. In Ireland I had noticed some thorny shrubs with small, bright yellow flowers that grew everywhere (they’re called gorse). They were heavily abundant in Scotland too. I had expected similarities between the Irish, English and Scottish landscapes, but nothing I had seen before prepared me for the northern parts of Scotland.

DSC_0529 (2)
Photo: Julia Karmel. Arms open to adventure.

I had being in Edinburgh before, but Glasgow was new to me (everything I knew of the city came from ABBA’s Super Trouper). Our plan was to get a car there and start driving north, through Oban, Kyle, Skye, Inverness, Cairngorms, Perth and, finally, Edinburgh. We had listed some places we wanted to visit, mostly mountains, lakes and castles, and we had made an itinerary of the Youth Hostels we’d spend a night or two in, but the road and how that would turn out remained a mystery. In the first place, none of us was used to driving on the left side of the road; in the second place, none of us had much money to spend; and to top it up, we had known each other for just some months (I had never even met one of the guys before), so how we’d get along remained a mystery too.

After doing some exploring in Glasgow, we finally hit the road. That first day was mainly a familiarization with the road, buying supplies and leaving the car every time a landscape seemed interesting. Once we made it to Cairngorms National Park, the stops became constant, we explored the areas around the lake, walked without a fixed direction, talked and ate under the trees, took pictures. The park is beautiful, cool but sheltered from April rain.

Loch Ness

After that we kept going north. We had planned to spend a few hours in Inverness and take a look at Loch Ness. The little Airbnb we got at Inverness smelled like curry and we didn’t spend much time in it, except for sleeping and preparing food. The weather here was a bit cruel, winds blowing strongly and freezing nights, although Inverness Castle and the cathedral, lighted up with yellow lamps, gave the city certain charm. Our nights there were calm, there were many pubs and restaurants, but they closed early and those we managed to find open were almost empty. I believe the most exciting night was when we had the terrible idea of buying Chinese takeaway and eating it on the banks of the River Ness. Fifteen minutes after we had sat on some monuments we couldn’t feel our hands, so we decided to go home. The food was no good either.

The same river, though, guided us next morning all the way to Loch Ness. That day was clear and the wind blew playfully, strongly when we arrived tho those silvery black waters. A lake that seemed to extend towards the horizon, indefinitely, and could have been mistaken for the sea. On the opposite bank, visible from where all the visitor points and shops are, stands a small castle, or I should say what remains of a castle, Urquhart, some ruins from the 13th century. To get there we got on a boat called The Nessie Hunter, whose owner told us a great deal about both the Loch Ness Monster and the history of the castle. Once we were on the boat the wind became colder and stronger, the water looked pitch black, reflecting the sun’s light with little, cold white circles that fluttered with the waves, almost hypnotically. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t look for Nessie in every and each one of those ripples of water, that strangely dark water, impossibly cold.

Eilean Donan Castle

When we left Inverness we made our way to Kyle, driving along the shores of Loch Carron and Loch Alsh, and found another fortress dated back to the 13th century, at the shores of Loch Duich: Eilean Donan. As it often happens with many castles in Scotland and Ireland, Eilean Donan has been restored and it is now a museum with tea rooms and restaurants, you can even hire the place for a wedding. We obviously were satisfied with just sitting next to Loch Duich and eat the sandwiches we had brought with us, looking towards the castle.

DSC_0173 (2)

The days in the road were long and both tiredness and the lack of alone time made us want to spend some time in silence, wearing headphones in the car or, in my case, find some time to read. The only book I kept from my trip to Ireland was Joyce’s Dubliners, and I read a story every once in a while. I was not upset I barely had time to read though. The long drives with no phone signal, the harsh democracy when choosing what we’d play in the car and the short nights in hostels made me aware of many different kinds of company, besides of that of books, to which I was accustomed to. We listened to each others stories about our countries or our plans for the future, about places we had been to, bands we had seen live, stupid things we had done. We listened, too, to the stories of anybody who wanted to tell us theirs; the boat owner from Loch Ness, the hostel workers, the barmans from those little local pubs specialized in whiskey. We talked much and listened even more, during brief stops on the road, on some broken boat at the shores of some lake, covered in scarves and sweaters, our pockets full of Cadbury chocolate.

Isle of Skye

DSC_0407 (2)
Photo: Julia Karmel. Neist Point, Isle of Skye.

After Kyle we crossed the Sound of Sleat channel to get to the Isle of Skye. The fascination that Scottish landscapes had awaken in me was exacerbated there. Wide extensions of land, all the shades of green and a new one for use, a lighter green than that of the main island, gigantic stones of an almost black grey, washed white at parts from the roaring sea. One day we made our way to Portree to spend a couple of nights there. Portree is the largest town in the island and it wasn’t hard to find a hostel near the bay. The hostel was the perfect location between Neist Point Lighthouse and The Storr, the two things we most wanted to see in Skye.

The Storr is a mountain located in the north of the island, in an area known as Trotternish, some twenty minutes by car from Portree. The name of the most famous pinnacle of the mountain is “The Old Man of Storr”, because its gaunt, tall structure resembles an elderly can with a cane. The walk to the top takes around an hour and it becomes more and more challenging as one ascends. We were there in the last days of April and we didn’t find more than five people there. I had a brutal cold then, but the view from the top pinnacles was something I will never forget. Land, water and clouds spread before me, mixing, melting, the deepest green, indigo and grey. I thought then I must have been at the very top of the world.

DSC_0615 (2)
The crew at The Storr.

Skye exemplifies the intimidating majesty of nature, a grandness that inspires both admiration and fear. After  days among mountains and lakes, I could not but realise that we often misunderstand nature— we read the the creases of the land, the waves of the water and murmurs of the wind through the trees and bend them to our docility fantasies. Here though, I had before me a hostile land, a dangerous land, with its own will and a stout refusal to be tamed or even understood. And it was much more beautiful than the best tended garden.

After Skye we got back in the car, this time west bound, hoping to find something like The Storr there. Neist Point is in Durnish and the walk towards the lighthouse begins near Glendale. The first part of the way is a path surrounded by ligh green hills and from there we had our first view of the lighthouse: a simple white structure on top of which rests a small column, all on top of a cliff against which the waves crashed violently. The closer one gets to the lighthouse, the more dangerous it is to approach the sea, the path disappears and gives way to a series of rocks of different sizes, some half submerged, from which we hopped to see a bit of the lower part of the cliff. The lighthouse itself is around a hundred years old, filled now with old furniture. From the top of the cliff the islands that are between Skye and the Atlantic are invisible, so it looks as if an infinite extension of sea divided Neist Point from America. On the way back we stopped over the giant rocks to rest, taking advantage of the little sun we had that day, lulled by the sound of the sea and the occasional squawks of the seagulls.

Glenfinnan Viaduct and the end

DSC_0647 (2)
Photo: Julia Karmel

Then we made or way back to the Main Land, where our first stop was Glenfinnan, specifically the viaduct, close to Loch Shiel. We stopped there because that’s where the Hogwarts Express goes through in the Harry Potter films. There is actually a train passing in mid May, sadly we were too early to see it. After Glenfinnan we drove along the banks of Loch Eli all the way to Fort William, were we rested before making our way to Oban, where we would sleep.

Oban is a little town close to the Islandof Kerrera. It was our penultimate stop of the trip, afterwards we’d make our way to Edinburgh, from where each of us would continue our separate ways. In Oban we walked around the town and learned to drink Scotch in a small distillery where dozens of Scots had gathered to watch a soccer match. What I remember the most about the town is the bay, a half-moon on whose shores were piled up boats in all conditions, of all sizes and colours. Even when Edinburgh was the last stop, Oban was the end of a way of traveling, with no big cities to go to for comfort, a way of traveling in which a lake or a mountain was never too far off and in which we could look at the stars every night.

Where to have coffee in Vienna

Last February I had the chance to explore Austria’s capital guided by my local friends. Having been there before, I was surprised to see how many different layers the city has. There’s something for nature lovers, something for classicists, something for alternative crews… and for all kinds of foodies and coffee lovers. Here are my top coffee places in Vienna, awesome to go to for a quick bite and a caffeine fix.


tanzenanders
Sweet potato omelet at Tanzen Anders 😍[[[[[[[[[[[[

Tanzen Anders

This is a wonderful place for breakfast or brunch. It is in Margareten (which is also a great area to stay, full of cafés and young people), and their manu is both simple and tasty. With its minimalistic decoration and great window panes, it is a cozy little place to have your first coffee or chat with friends. I had a wonderful sweet potato omelet there, and the hot coco is also very good.


IMG_9749.jpg
Chicken curry and Viennese beer at Augustin.

Das Augustin

A very chic place for dinner and drinks, dim lights, comfy chairs and really good food. It is a little expensive, but worth it. They have everything from burgers and pasta to gnocchi and curry (which I had and was very tasty). Specially good for large groups of people.


Wonderful carrot cake at Motto.

Motto am Fluss

This place is cool because it’s on a boat on the Danube. Although the interior is very pretty (long, shared tables and glass ceiling and walls), it is better to go here when the weather is good, because the terrace overlooking the river is closed in Winter. However, as the prices are a bit expensive, you can just try it for coffee and cake, they have really good cakes (try the carrot cake!).


Gerstner K.u.K. Hofzuckerbäcker

If you’re looking for a very Viennese coffee experience, this is the place. This “konditorei” has it all from coffee to fancy food and exuberant cakes, all in an elegant three-store store building that’ll take you back to the Imperial days. Whether you’re going by yourself of with a small group, this place will make you feel instantly at home with their cozy corners and cozy chairs. As it is in the centre, you might get pretty cool views of Kärntner Straße from the upper floors.


Vollpension

This place claims to have the best pastries in Vienna. They probably do. This place’s food is prepared by grandmas and grandpas and they have all sorts of cakes and hot beverages, and the decorations and atmosphere are both great. Walls full of pictures, large sofas and low tables. The only downside is that it is usually booked for brunch, so plan ahead.


Justizcafé. The café at the Palace of Justice

This is a place not many people know about, because it’s on top of an official building. You’ll have to go through security check and then climb all the way up to the little terrace where government employees have their lunch. The coffee and food are alright, but hey highlight of the place is the view. On summer there are tables on the terrace and in Winter, if you can stand it, you can still look at the city from the balcony.

Books That Inspired Me to Travel

Throughout my life, and perhaps the more so because I’m a literature undergrad, I have read many kinds of books. And many of those books have changed me and shaped the ways in which I interact with the world.

Of all those ways in which books have changed me, this post is dedicated to those books that inspired me to travel, those which gave me itchy feet and to which I owe this never-ending desire to go to “faraway lands”, to get lost in big cities and found in quiet mountain tops or forgotten little towns. Some of these books just describe places in such a vivid way that I was compelled to visit them, but most are not about destinations about but journeys themselves.


Leaves of Grass, Walt Whitman

Whitman’s poetry is hope, energy, youth. When I first read Leaves of Grass I started to understand things I had only guessed before about my place in the world. “Not I, nor anyone else can travel that road for you. /You must travel it by yourself. /It is not far. It is within reach. /Perhaps you have been on it since you were born, and did not know. / Perhaps it is everywhere – on water and land.”

To actually feel part of the world wherever I am, however distant it may seem, has been a big breakthrough for me: “For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.” I used to set too much store on destinations and possessions, to think that when I had this or when I were somewhere else I would be happy, but that was not only untrue, but also an unsustainable way of living. Now I’d rather be here and think of traveling in a broader sense, I want to be here as much as possible and when I’m somewhere else I want to be there with all my heart.


Villette, Charlotte Brontë

Though not Charlotte’s most famous novel, Villette is perhaps my favourite. A young woman with no money or family who embarks to Europe in search of a better life. She arrives in a little town in Belgium only to realise that the journey is not yet over. When she’s in she ship, uncertain of where she’s going but fully embracing her own adventure, she says: “So peril, loneliness, an uncertain future, are not oppressive evils, so long as the frame is healthy and the faculties are employed; so long especially, as Liberty lends us her wings, and Hope guides us by her star. And this quote has accompanied me since. Somehow that’s what traveling is about for me, the excitement of adventure, the fear and uncertainty that freedom can arouse, and ultimately the hopes for better things to come, and to each travel to show us things of ourselves we didn’t know before.


Into the Wild, Jon Krakauer

This is a recent read for me (no, I haven’t watched the movie yet), and I must say I was completely appalled and excited by the adventures of Chris McCandless (aka Alexander Supertramp) that Krakauer narrates. When talking about this book I found that many people think the author glorifies the stupidity of this young man who went to live by himself in the Alaskan wilderness. I really don’t think he does. I actually think Krakauer does an amazing job in setting apart his opinions from the facts, while also rendering a complex portrait of the 22-year-old. I don’t believe Chris McCandles was a hero, but I do believe he understood what he was up to and understood too the perils of modern society. If I learned something from this book, it was about self-reliance. This book made me so much more conscious of my dependance on material things as well of the implications of everything I do (from the food I eat to the clothes I wear), and I think we could all learn a bit from both Jon Krakauer, an amazing writer and adventurer, and Chris McCandless. I also can’t wait to travel to Alaska.

If you’re interested in self-reliance, I highly recommend you read Emerson’s text of the same name. It might change your life. Also, if you’re on Goodreads, I made a list of all the books that appear in Into the Wild, most of which McCandless read. So add me here, and the list is called “Into-the-wild”. 


A Moveable Feast, Ernest Hemingway

I’m a big fan of Hemingway (my favourite novel is definitely A Farewell to Arms) and so I had to read this memoir. Apart from it being the best memoir I’ve read, it is also one of the best books about Paris ever. I love this book because it combines my two passions: literature and travel writing. Hemingway’s descriptions of Paris are astounding, he describes the parties and the itineraries he followed when living there, all the alcohol and tobacco and all the artists he met there. He also tells some funny and heartbreaking anecdotes and talks of Scott Fitzgerald, Gertrude Stein, Pablo Picasso and James Joyce. When I read it I had already been to Paris, but the way in which he describes the cafés in the Latin Quartier, all the gardens and the boulangeries, just made me want to go again. From this book you’ll get a ton of places to see in Paris, including Shakespeare & Co., as well as some of the most interesting reflections on what it means to be a writer and what it takes to write.


On the Road, Jack Kerouac

Of course, I had to include this one, and you’ve probably read it already. Although Kerouac might not be my favourite beatnik, this book is special. I must confess I found it poorly written and boring at some points (and I don’t think I hate any fictional character more than I hate Dean Moriarty), but there’s some raw stuff in here that is so important for me, the love of experience for the sake of experience. The book is about a road trip, perhaps The Road Trip, across North America, and Kerouac was clearly not gonna let grammar interfere in his rendering of this experience. The book has many great moments of clarity that made me jump of excitement and recognition, and I think any fellow traveler, or any young person really, will feel the same.

I’ll just leave some cool quotes here:

  • “What is that feeling when you’re driving away from people and they recede on the plain till you see their specks dispersing? – it’s the too-huge world vaulting us, and it’s good-bye. But we lean forward to the next crazy venture beneath the skies.”
  • “… the only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars and in the middle you see the blue centerlight pop and everybody goes “Awww!”
  • “Nothing behind me, everything ahead of me, as is ever so on the road.”


The Call of the Wild, Jack London

This is one of the books mentioned in Into the Wild. It is about a house dog from California that is sold to be a sleigh dog in Alaska and how this drastic change forces him to go back to his nature. What I like about this book is that it does not idealize nature as something good, but it represents it with all its violence, as a merciless force, and yet a majestic one. This book made me think so much about our relationship to nature and it made me change the ways in which I interact with it, so if you’re a nature lover, I recommend this book.

Have you read any of these?

If so, what did you think of them? I’d love to hear from you on the comments.

Happy reading!

Nottingham

I arrived in Nottingham not knowing what to expect. Before this trip I had spent some time in England—in Cambridge, London and some other places north and south—,but the Midlands remained unknown to me. I had heard of the city only in relation with Robin Hood, Richard the Lionheart and Sherwood Forest. When I arrived, on a bus from London in the middle of the night, my first glimpses of the city were not quite the best. A dirty bus stop and an empty street. And damp cold. However, my first morning there made me realise that Nottingham is one of those cities that transform from day to night and from weekdays to weekends.

On Market Square, a modern explanada with fountains and a few slender trees in front of the City Hall, a big ferries wheel occupied most of the space and that’s now one of the first things that comes to mind when I think of Notts. Even though it’s there for just one season, the wheel against the grey skies and the white building behind is a charming sight. During my stay, the wheel was my friend’s meeting point when exploring the many cafés and tea rooms in the city centre. Though the streets that encircle around Market Square are filled with fast food chains and phone repair shacks, a short walk in any direction will lead to more colorful, narrow streets where pubs, little cafés and handicrafts shops abound. My favorite street is Pelham street, even when it’s dangerously close to Primark.

Captura de pantalla 2018-02-07 a la(s) 15.06.16

Coffee and food favorites

Fox Café

Boy, did I spend time here. It’s a small and cosy coffee shop that also offers cakes, breakfast and lunch. The service is great. This is the perfect spot to have lunch with friends or a quiet time by yourself with a book, some tea and banana bread (which I specially recommend). It is also a great spot to look around; one of my favourite things about Nottingham was the variety of people that live there and that walk past Pelham Street (where Fox is) every day! Guys in black leather outfits, girls with corsettes and piercings, tattoos everywhere, guys with cardigans that looked out of the Hamptons, girls that look Instagram-famous, elderly couples in the most British jumpers, loud children, young couples with several Primark bags, slender cyclist and lots of university alumni in jumpers.


Homemade

It’s a little bakery almost in front of Fox Café, which serves some of te finest cakes I’ve tasted in my life. They have a huge variety of cakes (even vegan and so on) and they’re all really good. I used to go there with two or three friends and each one of us would ask for a different cake, then we’d share. The place is small and a bit crowded during weekends though. You can also have a good brunch here.


The Hockley Arts Club

I wish I had spent more time here, it’s a fancy bar beautifully decorated and with a cool terrace. It’s good to start a night out (though a bit expensive) or play some board games over drinks, if you’re in a quieter mood.


There are plenty of traditional pubs in the city centre and close to the Castle (like Ye Olde Trip to Jerusalem, supposed to be the oldest pub in England, or The Pit & Pendulum, named after Poe’s short story, an eerie kind of place).

Captura de pantalla 2018-02-10 a la(s) 21.24.00
Hockley Arts Club


Other favourites

Wollaton Hall and Deer Park

Captura de pantalla 2018-02-13 a la(s) 13.19.48

Okay, so this place is famous because of Batman. This Elizabethan country house was featured in The Dark Knight Rises as Bruce Wayne’s mansion. But apart from that, it’s a magnificent piece of architecture and currently a creepy taxidermy museum. There’s a gift-shop and a restaurant where you can hang around once you’ve walked around one of my favorite jogging and reading spots in Notts: Wollaton Park. There are plenty of trees, a trail and a lake. It is beautiful during Winter and Summer, and there are red deer hanging around. In a sunny day, this is the perfect place for a picnic and even during the colder months you could walk around or sit on the benches and do some deer-watching. I had never been so close to deer in my life and they are such beautiful, graceful creatures. So yes, this is a must.


Sherwood Forest

Captura de pantalla 2018-02-13 a la(s) 13.18.43

This is the famous forest where Robin Hood and his Merry Men lived, as the story goes. It is also the home of the Major Oak! A very huge and very old tree where Robin Hood supposedly slept. Legend aside, the tree is like 10 meters high and between 800 and 1000 years old. Nowadays it is supported by some metallic structure, but it’s still majestic. The forest in general is a quiet, nice place. There are many species of birds flying around, as well as rabbits and squirrels. There are also camping and dining areas with tables and a gift shop at the entrance.


You can also take a look around the University of Nottingham, University Park Campus, a vast extension of land around period buildings, cafeterias and cafés where you can get very good chicken curry (at Portland Building), or head to the Lakeside Arts Club to see a play or listen to some live music.

IMG_4833