2019 TRAVELLING: The year in review

I started this blog back in 2013 to document my European trips. In 2019 my husband and I finished our long-term plan of visiting every European country!

And of course there were also plenty of other adventures, as my work took me to many unexpected places.

  • In March we drank the good wine in Moldova.
  • Then I headed to Lebanon, where I got the chance to explore a little bit of Beirut.
  • In April we ate all the vegan food in Copenhagen and had a day trip to Malmo.
  • In May I discovered the beautiful Wroclaw and all its gnomes.
  • Later in May I ate all the good food in my favourite area of Rome.
  • In June we has fun exploring Plovdiv and Sofia in Bulgaria.
  • In August I had the unique opportunity to visit Afghanistan for work.
  • In September we finally did it! We completed our European adventure by visiting an amazing country, Georgia.
  • In October I went back to Kosovo, this time for work.

Another great year of many adventures!

In 2020 I’m planning to explore some of Asia and go back to my favourite country (Japan). Where will 2020 take you?

SUNNY DAYS AND OLD FAVOURITES: Christmas in Rome

This was my second Christmas in Rome. It’s a good place to visit this time of the year as there is plenty to do (including on Christmas Day itself) and the weather is very mild.

The main attractions are closed on Christmas day, but in the city centre there is plenty to do. It was a sunny day so we went for a picnic at Villa Borghese where plenty of families and tourists were enjoying a nice day out.

Attractions off the beaten track:

I know Rome well, so I prefer to avoid the crowds and check out some new sights.

  • Galleria Sciarra: a beautifully decorated building that not many tourists know about. A nice place to escape the crowds in central Rome.
  • Centrale Montemartini: This museum in an old powerhouse has an impressive collection of sculptures in a modern space. Tickets for €11.
  • I visited Palazzo Quirinale, which was hosting an exhibition about the volcanic eruptions of Pompeii and Santorini. It is a beautiful space and a nice place to check out for something different. Tickets €15 (or €8 at lunchtime during the week).

Food:

I always have a long list of food places to visit when I’m in Rome.

  • I went to explore some of my favourite places in Testaccio and Ostiense. We went to Pasticceria Andreotti for coffee, stopped for pizza at Casa Manco in Testaccio Market and finished with desert at Pasticceria Barberini.
  • Seu Pizza Illuminati: this place has been on my list for a couple of years, but it was definitely worth the wait. They serve a mix of traditional and unusual pizzas, as well as a good selection of starters and deserts. Highly recommended. Dinner for two including drinks, dessert and tip for €50. Booking essential.
  • Necci: Pigneto is an up-and-coming neighbourhood, famous for its cool cafés and shops. When we visited most things were closed for the holidays, but the popular Necci was open, so we stopped there for coffee. Two coffees and a cake for €8.80.
  • La Forchetta: a local restaurant in Prati serving a good selection of traditional Italian food. Dinner for two including drinks, dessert and tip for €52.
  • Guttilla: a gelato place serving a delicious selection of flavours (a cup for €2.20).
  • Cresci: a nice local bar with a good selection of tapas and plenty of other options. Dinner for two including drinks and tip for €30.

EXPLORING RUINS IN TULUM AND YUCATAN TRAVEL PLANNING: The end of our Mexican trip

Tulum had been on my list for years, and it lived up to my expectations. This relaxed town is famous for Mayan ruins overlooking the sea and perfect sandy beaches.

Tulum’s archaeological site is the postcard view of the town. The site opens at 8am (tickets $75) and it’s good to arrive early to beat the crowds. The site is well-preserved and picturesque. It’s located a bit off the town centre, but easily reached by taxi (we paid $90) or colectivo buses.

Near the archaeological zone are some great beaches. We visited Pescadores which is supposed to be one of the most beautiful beaches in the world (and it looks it). The water is warm and there are plenty of boat tours available. It is the perfect image of a Mexican beach that you may have in your head.

Tulum town centre is full of nice cafés, souvenir shops and plenty of veggie restaurants. We visited a couple of nice places:

  • El Vegetariano: a laid-back vegetarian restaurant in the town centre serving a selection of vegan dishes. Dinner for two including drinks and tip for $380.
  • Co.con Amor: a vegetarian restaurant set in a beautiful garden in Tulum town. Large portions and delicious food. Lunch for two including drinks and tip for $410.

HOW TO DO IT:

  • Go: Tulum is well-connected by ADO bus to the main cities in the region.
  • Stay: we stayed at Biwa which was well-located in the town centre, had good service and excellent facilities. Alternatively there are plenty of other options close to the beach as well.

TRAVELLING AROUND YUCATAN – HOW TO DO IT:

We spent ten days travelling around Mexico, and it was a great experience. This is how we did it:

  • Itinerary planning: we travelled independently, but followed broadly this itinerary. The best way to get to Yucatán is to fly to Cancun (buses connect the airport with Cancun bus station and Playa del Carmen, where you can travel on to other destinations).
  • Travelling around: We used ADO bus to get around. Tickets can be booked online from 1 to 2 months before travelling, or directly at the station. The buses are comfortable, have air-con and are generally on time. For shorter routes colectivo minibuses are available and are pretty cheap. Speaking Spanish makes travelling easier as usually people only speak basic English.
  • Money: things are cheaper than in the UK. Many places accept credit cards, but for smaller purchases cash is ideal, and low denominations is preferred.
  • Food: Mexican food has plenty of veggie dishes, but these aren’t always clearly labelled. We had no problem asking for modifications to make dishes vegan, but speaking Spanish helps. Happy Cow has good options in most places. We ate very well, and particularly enjoyed the plentiful breakfasts, horchata and vegan tacos.

A TURQUOISE LAGOON AND RUINS IN THE JUNGLE: Visiting Bacalar and Calakmul

Bacalar is famous for its beautiful lagoon of turquoise waters. It’s a picturesque place with the most amazing views.

The water in the lagoon is very warm so you can spend a long time bobbing around and trying to spot the seven shades of blue for which Bacalar is famous.

There are many places for swimming (many are paid but it’s generally cheap: we went to Balneario Magico which charged $20 and had a restaurant, parasols, boats and kayaks for hire). You can also go in a boat trip to different parts of the lagoon. We hired a kayak ($200 for one hour) to reach the Canal de los Piratas, a shallow area with very clear water.

Other than exploring the lagoon there isn’t much to do, but you can visit Fort San Felipe (tickets $100) to get great views of the lagoon. The square in front of it is lively in the evenings as there are many restaurants and stalls selling food and handicraft.

FOOD:

  • La Playita: this beautiful restaurant overlooking the lagoon offers plenty of vegan options on its menu. Food is delicious. Dinner for two including drinks and tip for $405.
  • Mango y Chile: a popular vegan place serving burgers, tacos and a great selection of smoothies. Meal for two including drinks for $390.

CALAKMUL:

We heard about Calakmul and decided we wanted to check it out. Ka’an Expeditions have a popular tour so we booked a day trip with them.

Calakmul is an impressive Mayan city in the middle of the jungle. You can climb the different pyramids to get amazing views over the jungle and Mayan buildings nearby. There are plenty of howler and spider monkeys on the trees, and you also get to see the local flora and fauna.

It gets very hot, and there are plenty of mosquitoes, but when we visited the rain helped cool us down. Calakmul is very remote so there are few tourists around. It’s a great place to visit to see Mayan ruins without the crowds.

HOW TO DO IT:

  • Stay: we stayed at Sun Ha which was well-located, had terrace views over the lagoon and friendly service.
  • Go: Bacalar can be reached by ADO bus from Merida and other popular locations in the area.
  • Calakmul: Ka’an Expeditions has day trips which include pick up from cities in the region, a four-hour walk of the site, snacks, a light lunch and entrance to the different attractions. Our guide was knowledgeable and we had plenty of time to explore.

STREET FOOD AND PAINTED FACES: Day of the Dead in Merida

We knew we wanted to experience Day of the Dead in Mexico, and Merida is the best place for it in Yucatán. There are events throughout the week, but the highlight is the Paseo de las Animas, a parade which starts at the cemetery and finishes at the city centre.

The parade itself is not huge, but the whole town becomes a huge festival where you can see decorated altars, eat lots of local street food and get your face painted. It’s an amazing experience and although there are plenty of tourists it’s still mostly locals enjoying themselves and kids running around in traditional costumes.

During the week there are plenty of other activities. We saw a display of Pok-a-Tok, the traditional Mayan ballgame.

Merida is a beautiful city with colourful architecture and a traditional centre full of nice cafés and restaurants. The historic town centre is a lively region with plenty of places to explore. Merida is a big city but there is a relaxed vibe.

Paseo de Montejo is another interesting area: a beautiful boulevard with impressive mansions and upmarket shops.

Food:

  • Organico bar & cocina: a cool café serving a varied selection of veggie dishes made with local ingredients. Highly recommended. Brunch for two including drinks and tip for $270.
  • Sorbeteria Colón: a traditional ice cream parlour serving a range of seasonal flavours. One flavour for $45.
  • Casa Savia Vegana: a vegan restaurant with friendly service offering a limited but delicious selection of local flavours. Lunch for two including drinks and tip for $250.
  • Tacos Ne: this vegan taco truck is very popular. They serve six options of tacos (all delicious) which your top up with different garnishes. A simple and yummy experience. Tacos for $15.

HOW TO DO IT:

  • Stay: we stayed at Hotel Montejo which is well-located in a beautiful building.
  • Go: we took the ADO bus from Valladolid, which took about 2h15. Merida is well-connected with other places in the region.

MAYAN RUINS AND COLOURFUL HOUSES: Exploring Chichen Itza and Valladolid

Valladolid was the first town we visited in Mexico, and it was a great starting point. The town centre is pretty, with lots of little shops painted in bright colours. During the day students hang around the town centre and in the evening people go to the main square for a walk.

There are plenty of shops selling local handicraft, busy restaurants and street food stalls.

Yerbabuena del Sisal: a vegetarian restaurant serving a varied selection of delicious local dishes. Lunch for two including drinks and tip for $335. This restaurant is located at the end of a pretty street which is definitely worth exploring.

Wabi Gelato: a small gelato shop selling amazing flavours. The guava was particularly great. A small cup for $40.

Las Campanas is a popular restaurant by the main square. Vegan options are limited but delicious. Dinner for two including drinks and tip for $450.

Chichen Itza

These famous ruins are the most popular attraction in Yucatán. The site is impressive: aside from the pyramid that is instantly recognisable, there are plenty of other great buildings to visit.

You can cover the whole site in about three hours, and you should arrive there early to beat the crowds and explore before it’s unbearably hot.

Valladolid is a good starting point if you want to get to Chichen Itza early. We got the first collectivo bus from Valladolid at 7am (tickets for the bus for $35), getting into the archaeological site just before doors open at 8am (tickets to the site for $480).

HOW TO DO IT:

  • Go: Getting to Valladolid right after a transatlantic flight is a long journey (that’s what we did). From the Cancun airport, you can take the ADO bus to Cancun bus station, then another ADO bus to Valladolid (the trip takes about 3h). Another option is to stay overnight at Playa del Carmen and then take a bus to Valladolid.
  • Stay: we stayed at Hotel Catedral which was well-located and staff was very friendly.

PLANNING IN ADVANCE AND RESEARCHING LOCAL CUSTOMS: My travel checklist

The other day I wrote about how I find that having a standard travel routine helps make travel planning easier.

So I decided to write my list of the things I do for my trips – but of course depending on the trip you may not need to spend much time on these things.

1. Travel-related activities to do before you even know where you’re going:

These are best-practice things that you will want to have in place at all times.

  • Ensure your passport is valid and renew it 6 months before the expiry date
  • Save a photo of your passport to your email so that you can always retrieve it
  • Always have valid multi-trip travel insurance
  • Get a credit card that doesn’t charge extra for using abroad

2. Planning a trip:

When you decide where you’re going and start planning a trip, these are the key things you will want to do:

  • Book flights (inform of special meal requirements)
  • Book time off from work
  • Research and plan itinerary
  • Book accommodation
  • Book any activities/excursions (inform of special meal requirements)
  • Book any local transportation (buses, trains) or research what the options are

3. Get the paperwork sorted:

These things are boring but crucial to do.

  • Check visa requirements (and apply for visa if needed)
  • Check if any vaccinations/anti-malarials/other health-related preparation is advised
  • Buy local currency if you can (or research how to buy it in country) and check if credit cards are widely accepted

3. Do your local research

  • Use Google maps and download offline maps of the places you are visiting
  • Add local spots you want to visit to Google Maps
  • Check Happy Cow for vegetarian and vegan options
  • Make reservations and check opening times to any restaurant, show or attraction you won’t want to miss
  • Check if tap water is safe to drink
  • Research the local tipping etiquette
  • Check the local weather forecast
  • Check the local dress code (not required for most trips!)
  • Read about local security measures (not required for most trips!)
  • Check if your mobile will work and what the charges may be

4. Pack

I use my ultimate packing list.

5. Final preparations

  • Check in as early as possible and print or download the boarding pass
  • Print any essential paperwork (vouchers you may need, instructions to give to a driver at the airport)
  • Research transportation from the airport
  • Sometimes hotels/tour operators/Airbnb hosts ask you to confirm your arrival in advance, so keep them informed

6. Unpack

I always unpack as soon as I’m back home, this is how I know I’ve fully arrived!

What are your tips on preparing for a trip?