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.

BEAUTIFUL MOUNTAINS AND SULPHUR BATHS: Exploring Tbilisi and Georgia

Georgia was the final European country on our list! Georgia is actually between Europe and Asia, which is clear: the architecture, food and culture are western and eastern at once. You can spend a couple of days exploring Tbilisi and take a couple of tours to other regions.

It’s an interesting country where change is clearly underway. A common topic of conversation is wondering what the country will look like in a few years’ time and then agreeing this is the perfect time to visit.

Tbilisi Old Town:

Tbilisi Old Town is a mash-up of traditional architecture, rundown buildings and plenty of lively cafes and restaurants. The narrow roads are filled with cool bars and shops in the traditional architecture.

The traditional bath houses have been done up, and behind them you will find a nice path leading up to a beautiful waterfall. Or you can walk up to the Mother of Georgia statue, which is a great place to get the best views over the Old Town and the main sites. Nearby is the Botanical Garden (entry 4 GEL) and the Narikala fortress which also has great views.

Over the river you will find the unfinished Opera House which, alongside the Bridge of Peace, provides the modern background to the Old Town. It’s also fun to walk around at night to get a different view of the sites.

Orbeliani Sulphur Baths

Tbilisi is famous for its sulphur baths and Orbeliani, with its impressive mosaic facade, is the most famous one (one hour in a large private room with hot and cold pools and sauna for 120 GEL). It’s good to book at least a few hours in advance. This post explains how things work.

Eat and drink

Veganism is not a thing in Georgia but most places have plenty of options – even when they are not clearly labelled. This is a useful list of Georgian dishes that are vegan. There are also plenty of veggie options with cheese, including the famous khachapuri (bread with cheese). In the streets there are lots of places selling churchkhela, a traditional sweet with fruit and nuts which was really nice.

  • Fabrika: a popular place to hang out, this hostel is laid-back and offers loads of places to have a drink, eat and shop. It’s a bit off the Old Town, but easily accessible by Metro and located in an interesting local neighbourhood.
  • Kiwi Vegan Café: a chilled café close to Liberty Square, serving plenty of yummy options. Lunch for two including drinks and tip for 35 GEL.
  • Hummus Bar: this place is slightly hidden-away, making for a quiet spot in a busy area. There are plenty of varieties of hummus – the ones we tried were delicious. A light dinner for two including drinks and tip for 46 GEL.
  • Sioni 13: a wine bar good for people-watching. A light bite for two including drinks and tip for 40 GEL.
  • Bridge Hostel: A new hostel next to Peace Bridge with a cool bar.

Day trip to Kazbegi:

We booked a tour to visit Mount Kazbegi. Georgia is famous for its mountains and landscape, and a day trip from Tbilisi is a good way to see it.

It is a long journey to Trinity Church, but the views along the way are great. The church itself is simple, but the location is amazing. From there we visited the Friendship Monument, which again is set in an impressive location with breathtaking views. We finished the day exploring Ananuri fortress and Jinvali reservoir for more great views.

This was a great trip to see the Georgian countryside. We bought this tour which was cheap and really good. It is a long day but definitely worth it!

Day trip to Mtskheta

We took another day trip to check out some other sites. We started at Uplistsikhe caves, an ancient city built on caves overlooking the countryside. From there we headed to Gori, where Stalin was born. We skipped the Stalin Museum and instead headed to the fortress, but the town doesn’t really have much to offer.

We stopped for lunch at a nearby place: a house where a local family prepared a good selection of veggie dishes, including fresh cheese and a traditional Georgian dish of aubergine and walnuts.

The next stop was Jvari Monastery, set in a hill overlooking Mtskheta, the old capital of Georgia, where we visited the local church and wandered around the little roads full of stalls selling sweets, before heading back to Tbilisi. We joined this tour.

How to do it:

  • Go: Georgian Airways is the only company offering direct flights from the UK, but it can be tricky to book through their website, so we ended up booking through lastminute.com.
  • Stay: we stayed at Betlemi which was well-located in the Old Town and had friendly service.
  • Money: prices vary significantly from place to place, but for UK standards, everything is cheap – most of our meals cost less than £15 for two people. You can change Georgian Lari at the airport, but most places accept credit cards.
  • Transportation: you can cover Tbilisi mostly on foot, but they also have a Metro network that is useful outside the Old Town. You buy a card (which can be used by multiple people) and top it up at the station. Transport from the airport is by taxi only, and you will need to negotiate (we paid 70 GEL from the airport and 40 GEL from the centre when we arranged it through our hotel).

FRESH LEMONADE AND SUNNY DAYS: Exploring chilled Bulgaria

Bulgaria was one of the few European countries still left on our list, so we decided to check it out. We spent a few very hot days exploring beautiful Plovdiv and Sofia.

PLOVDIV

The Old Town is picturesque. The cobblestone streets and traditional architecture are the perfect setting for plenty of cafés, shops and street art. You can explore the Roman ruins and traditional houses and cool down with a glass of homemade lemonade.

  • Veggic: a vegan restaurant and café serving great variety of salads, warm dishes and desert. We even came back again the next day! Dinner for two including drinks and desert for 36 lev.
  • Central Perk: a popular Friends-themed café where you can cool down with a drink alfresco. Drinks and snacks for two including tip for 25 lev.
  • Afreddo: a popular ice cream shop with plenty of flavours and clearly labelled vegan options. Two scoops for 3 lev.

Stay: we stayed at Photo House, a traditional Bulgarian restaurant with ample rooms and great location. We paid 176 lev for two nights.

Go: there aren’t many flights to Plovdiv, so the best option is to fly to Sofia, take the metro to the Central Station then get a bus to Plovdiv. The trip takes about 2h20 and tickets cost 14 lev. Buses leave every hour or so and times are available here. From Plovdiv to Sofia, buses depart from the bus station located by the central train station throughout the afternoon. Tickets for 9.50 lev can be bought here or at the Karats kiosk by the train station.

SOFIA

We only had one afternoon in Sofia, but we covered plenty of ground. We spent a few hours exploring the city centre (which is easy to cover on foot).

We visited the Central Market, the impressive cathedral St Alexander Nevsky and the busy Boulevard Vitosha, where locals enjoyed the good weather in cool cafés. Tsar Ivan Shishman Street is full of nice shops and bars, so we spent some time wandering around.

  • Restaurant Kring: a self-service restaurant with a great selection of mostly vegan dishes. 100g for 1 lev.
  • Sun Moon: a veggie restaurant and bakery with plenty of delicious options. Lunch for two including drinks and tip for 28 lev.

Stay: we stayed at Hotel Lion Sofia, which was centrally located close to the bus station.

Transportation: Sofia is easily covered on foot, but the metro is easy to navigate and covers many of the main areas. Tickets for 1.40 lev.

BEAUTIFUL ARCHITECTURE AND A SUNSET BY THE BAY: An evening in Beirut

The thing about work trips is that there isn’t much time to explore the amazing places that I visit. In my recent trip to Lebanon I only had a few free hours, so I made the most of them.

Downtown Beirut is beautiful: there is a nice contrast between old and new architecture, with plenty of impressive buildings.

Zaitunay bay is a popular area with the locals, and great to explore: you can spend a few hours walking by the yachts, and stop for dinner or coffee at one of the many places around.

We went to Leila for dinner, which was a great choice. You can try the amazing local meze with a great view of the bay. A delicious dinner for two including tip for $80.

HANGING OUT WITH GIRAFFES AND BUFFALOES: One day in Nairobi

I had a free day in Nairobi during a work trip, so I joined a tour to see some of the local highlights.

  • Nairobi National Park: the most popular attraction of Nairobi, this huge park is located just outside the city, but you can spot lions, giraffes, rhinos, buffaloes and much more. It’s a great place to visit if you don’t have time to go on a safari (tickets for $43).
  • David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust: An orphanage for rhinos and elephants, where you can see them being fed (tickets for 500Ksh).
  • Giraffe Park: A small but fun place where you can feed giraffes and see them up close (tickets for 1,000Ksh).
  • Bonas of Kenya: A cultural centre with a show of local dance and music (tickets for 1,000Ksh).

I booked a group tour with this company. It was a good way of seeing most of the main sights in one day. The National Park is the definite highlight!

For dinner I went to Nyama Mama, a cool and popular restaurant serving modern Kenyan food. There are plenty of veggie options and the food is very delicious. Dinner for two including drinks and tip for 3,000Ksh.

VEGGIE RESTAURANTS AND BEAUTIFUL MOUNTAINS: Barcelona and Andorra

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We started our trip exploring Sant Antoni, which was on this list of 50 cool neighbourhoods. We had a yummy lunch at Santoni, a vegan place with lots of options for meals and snacks (lunch for two for €14).

Nearby is Fabrica Moritz, the flagship bar of a local brewery, where you can try different beers in an impressive setting (a tasting set of 4 beers for €8)

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  • El Bosc de Les Fades is an old favourite, so we went there as usual (drinks for 3€).
  • Rasoterra is a veggie place serving a delicious tasting menu with plenty of local ingredients. Ideal for a special meal (dinner for two including drinks and tip for €100).
  • Cat Bar: another old favourite in the Gothic neighbourhood, this vegan bar serves yummy burgers and craft beer (lunch for two including drinks and tip for €30).
  • Alive: a cool vegan restaurant very close to our hotel, serving delicious pasta dishes (dinner for two including drinks and tip for €32).
  • Stay: we stayed at Aparthotel Atenea, which is a good self-catering option near Sants Station.

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ANDORRA:

We went to Andorra on a day trip from Barcelona. Andorra is mostly famous for skiing, but we took the bus to Andorra la Vella to check it out instead.

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There isn’t that much to do, so a few hours exploring is plenty of time. The town is pretty and picturesque, and the mountains provide a beautiful backdrop.

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  • Veggie’s World: the only veggie place in Andorra serves a great selection of local dishes (lunch for two including drinks, tip and dessert for €45).
  • Go: buses from Barcelona leave from Sants Station and take 3h each way. Tickets can be bought in advance here.

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COOL BARS AND SUNNY DAYS: A day in Tirana

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We arrived in Tirana tired from a long bus journey, but the city was quickly appealing. Interesting architecture, busy cafes and loads of interesting places quickly piqued our interest.

Tirana’s town centre is pretty and easily covered on foot. Stop at one of the many cafes, or join the locals at the Great Park of Tirana. We were lucky to stay around Blloku, a cool neighbourhood full of nice bars, which is the hotspot for Tirana’s nightlife.

Bunk’art2: a museum set in a bunker with displays about Albania’s recent history. Worth a visit. Tickets for  500 Lek.

Salt: we went to Salt because they had some vegan options on the menu, but this place was just perfect. Located on a street full of cool bars and restaurants, Salt is a stunning place with great service and delicious food. Lunch for two including drinks and tip for 2,500 Lek. Highly recommended!

Brauhaus: a local brewery where you can have a beer right next to the brewery tanks. Two beers and tip for 320 Lek.

Spaghetti Western: one of the many places around Blloku, serving Tex-Mex food. Dinner for two including drinks and tip for 1,500 Lek.

Charl’s: a large bar with a cool decor. Beers for 350 Lek.

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HOW TO DO IT:

  • Go: we took the bus from Ohrid. The journey takes 5h30 and buses leave at 9am, but they are usually late. Tickets cost 700 MKD. The bus journey does a massive detour, so a taxi for €60 is probably a better option, as it would take half the time. There are flights from London too.
  • Stay: we stayed at Hotel Hermes which is a comfortable hotel in a great location. Efficient service and yummy breakfast.