Trip Recap: Best of, Worst of …

Well, we’ve been back about three weeks now and the Round the World trip is fading into memory … What a fabulous journey. I feel so fortunate to have been able to do this trip – it was amazing. Even the (few) parts that weren’t so great were great (if you know what I mean). Time to recap the highlights and lowlights:

Best (non-urban) Beach

Hong Island, Krabi, West Coast of Thailand

Hong Island, the largest of the group of islands in Than Bok Thoranee Marine National Park, is beautiful: powder white sand, glorious green vegetation, turquoise-green water, and towering orange-tinged limestone cliffs. Two small bays are separated by smaller limestone clifflets, through a gap in which we could see boats come and go. See my original post here.

Best Beach (urban)

This is a toss-up between three very different beaches: Jomtien, Pattaya, Thailand, Cancun, Mexico, and Puerto Vallarta, Mexico. Jomtien, because the beach is decent, with great restaurants, a lively vibe, great people-watching, and very cheap transportation around the area.

Cancun, because the beach is long and wide, twenty six kilometers of sand. Playa Gaviota Azul, in Cancun’s Hotel Zone, was a favourite spot for us. The large, wide beach was often full of local families, with kids large and small enjoying the day. Because this area of the beach has a sand bar not too far offshore, a shallow pool of ocean water untouched by the big surf is created so it’s perfect for small children. Read more here.

Los Muertos beach in Puerto Vallarta, because it’s sandy, has big waves and great beach restaurants, and the weather was amazing. Read more here and here.

Best Accomodation (apartment/condo)

Our fully-equipped, nicely decorated 4th floor apartment 1/2 block off Los Muertos Beach in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, an incredible deal at Easter for $45 a night.

See my post here for more on Puerto Vallarta’s South Side.

Best Accommodation (hotel, B&B, hostel)

This is a tricky one – in the running, are: Merthayasa Bungalows in Ubud, Bali; Blue Star Bungalows in Amed, Bali; Sabai Mansion in Ao Nang, Thailand; and Hotelito Swiss Oasis in Puerto Escondido, Mexico. Each of these was great in its own way. We loved the pool at the Merthayasa and the price was right at 180,000 IDR ($19) a night.

The Blue Star, right on the beach at Jemeluk Bay, had wonderful staff, great snorkelling and swimming, and a pleasant enough room for 200,000 IDR a night ($21.50 – a special price because we didn’t use the air con).

Sabai Mansion was well-located 500 meters from the beach, with a great pool, a restaurant, and nice staff for 855 bht a night ($27.50).

And we also loved the Hotelito Swiss Oasis, 1/2 block from Playa Zicatela in Puerto Escondido, with a pool and small communal kitchen, for 450 pesos night ($34.50).

The Pool and Palm villa in Siem Reap had the best pool, large, beautiful, and clean, very refreshing in the heat of central Cambodia.

Best Recreational Activity (Land-based)

Bali Eco Cycling, a cycle trip beginning at a volcano, then riding downhill through a coffee plantation, village homes and temples, and rice fields, finishing with a Balinese food feast. Read all about it here.

Runner up: Cycling the North Head, in Manly, Australia: wildlife, artillery, ecological projects, golden chariot, cemeteries. Read more here.

Best Recreational Activity (Water-based)

Our private longtail boat trip to the Hong Islands, Krabi, Thailand, a great day out on the water visiting several different beaches, lagoons, and islands in the Andaman Sea. Read my post here.

Best Temple(s) Ancient

This one is no contest – Angkor Wat/Thom in Siem Reap, Cambodia is an epic, once-in-a-lifetime Must See for all you temple and archeological site lovers. Incredibly beautiful architecture and sculpture in a huge and beautiful park setting. See my posts here, here, and here.

Runner up: Uxmal and the Puuc route south of Merida in the Yucatan.

Wanting to see some of the less well-known Mayan ruins in the Yucatan while in Merida, but not wanting to drive ourselves, Ty and I decided to do a day trip with a driver from Yucatan Connect to the Lol Tun Caves and the sites along the Puuc Route, south and south east of Merida. Highly recommended – read more here.

Best Temple (Modern)

Bang Rieng, Krabi, Thailand, a mountain-top temple about an hour and a half’s driving north of Ao Nang along the road to Phuket. It sits atop Khao Lan or One Million Mountain, overlooking the Thaput countryside. The temple and grounds are spectacular, as is the view from the top; green hills and tended fields spread out in a vast panorama below the temple precincts, looking very much like central Italy. Read more here.

Best visual art scene

This category is a tie between Ubud, Bali and Puerto Vallarta, Mexico. Ubud has lots of great contemporary art galleries, as well as a couple of excellent art museums focusing on modern Balinese and Indonesian art. Read more here and here.

Puerto Vallarta also has a great contemporary art scene, with lots of commercial galleries, artists studios and residencies, and two weekly art walks in the old town and centro areas. Read more here and here.

Most Intriguing Cultural Performance

The Balinese Classical Legong and Barong Dance at the Ubud Palace was fascinating and beautiful. See a video of part of the performance here. Read more about Ubud’s cultural scene here.

Best Local Experience

While staying at the Blue Star Bungalows in Amed, Bali, the owner Iluh, a lovely woman, invited me to join her at a village temple ceremony. She showed me how the offerings are made, gave me her temple clothes to wear, and drove me there and back on her motorcycle – an incredible experience.

Read about it here.

Runner up: Nox’ tours in Levuka, Ovalau, Fiji

We did two tours around Levuka with local guide Nox, one exploring all aspects of the town and the other up into the surrounding hills to visit local plantations. Really fascinating! Read more here and here.

Best Food

This category is also no contest – Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia has an amazing food scene and, remarkably, without even knowing it, we stayed in absolutely the best place for restaurants in KL, Bukit Bintang. Read my post here.

Best Nightlife

While Ty and I are not exactly nightlife junkies (and sometimes I can barely make it to 11 pm), we did enjoy the lively night scene in Ubud, Bali, particularly the great Spanish band at the Smiling Buddha and the jazz at Cafe Luna. Other nightlife options include Balinese dance, the Jazz Cafe, a gazillion great restaurants and bars …

Best transportation experience

The Pattaya/Jomtien baht bus, the song thaew pickups plying the roads in the area. Go anywhere for only 10 baht (30 cents).

And the tuk-tuks in Siem Reap, Cambodia: padded seats, beautiful fabrics, comfortable rides. Go anywhere around the town for $2.

Worst accommodation

None of the places we stayed were really terrible; some were just less good than the rest and a few were too expensive for what they offered. Sometimes the weather affected our view of a place – Fiji in the rain, for example. Janes Fales in Manase, Savaii, Samoa had a wonderful location right on a beautiful sandy beach, but the food was bad and we had a bad experience at their beach bar there that caused us to leave much sooner than we had planned. More info here.

Worst Food

Mostly, the food everywhere was good, if often not spicy enough for our liking. I guess the worst food I had was this terrible lunch at the Hornbill Restaurant in the Kuala Lumpur Bird Park – blecchhh. Read more about this day here.

Worst Beach

Surprisingly, particularly since the last time we were there it was lovely, the beach at Playa del Carmen was the worst we saw. Almost everywhere in the world erosion is a problem, as is high water and storm surges, all playing havoc with the beaches. One of the last days we were in Playa, after a rain storm, we could smell the sewage that had obviously overflowed the storm sewers and was just gushing out from pipes into the ocean, turning the turquoise water a dull dark brown in places.

Worst local experience

Nadi, Fiji. While in Nadi, we walked along the few rather decrepit blocks of the downtown area, asked for a restaurant recommendation, and were directed to a curry and seafood restaurant which, unfortunately, had bad food. The downtown area was pretty much deserted on a Friday night, which I found somewhat surprising, but the whole place seemed dreary, desperate, and depressing – we didn’t miss it when we left. Read more here and here.

Worst transportation experience

Wow – this is a tough category. Once again, it’s a tie, between the crazed maniacal minibus driver in Fiji, whose insane driving drove us out onto the road and into a school bus; the tweaking idiot in Bangkok whose meth-fuelled speed racer drive from Bangkok to Ayutthaya terrified me; and the overloaded and top heavy ferry boat back from Koh Laan to Pattaya, almost capsizing a couple of times along the way.

Most surprising place

Siem Reap, Cambodia, a lovely city with vibrant nightlife and proximity to the great Angkor temples and Samoa, a beautiful small country.

And Guanajuato, Mexico, a fabulous colourful hill-top town in the central highlands with loads of museums, haciendas, good restaurants, and a vibrant local scene.

For us one of the most surprising things was Semana Santa in Guanajuato – who knew that Easter would be so fabulous there?

Perhaps surprisingly, given how much we liked Bali, especially Amed, East Bali, our choice for retirement living in the sun when we’re old is, at the moment, Puerto Vallarta, Mexico. Why? Well, let me count the reasons:

1) It has a beautiful beach and a long malecon with sculpture and art.

2) It has a vibrant contemporary art scene, dancing, theatre, community centres with classes in language, art, yoga, tai chi, and the like. Lots of artists around the place.

3) It has great coffee shops and restaurants, especially in the Old Town.

4) Although there are lots of gringos, it’s still a Mexican town, especially a few blocks off the beach.

5) Great day trips to small towns and villages are easy by inexpensive local transport. For an example, see my report on Yelapa here.

6) Inexpensive accommodation can be had a few blocks off the beach

7) Rentals are pet-friendly. We can easily bring Brubin and the cat with us when we visit.

8) Easily and cheaply accessible by direct flight in only a few hours.

9) I speak Spanish, albeit not yet fluently.

Three Ex-Haciendas, a house, a temple, a torture museum, and a Palm Sunday Parade – Guanajuato!

We have had a busy few days here in Guanajuato.

On Saturday, we headed out on the bus to visit the Ex-Hacienda las Trancas, a former 17th century fort now converted to a luxurious hotel, about 15 kilometers outside of the city of Dolores Hidalgo, seemingly in the middle of nowhere. We’d not heard of this place before; the owner, Kelley Wilkinson, left a note on one of my blog posts, and after a bit of an email conversation, invited us to come out and spend the day at the hotel – we were delighted.

We were amazingly lucky with the bus – just as we purchased our tickets and got on, it pulled away – huzzah! Suzanne greeted us at the Hacienda and gave us a tour of the whole facility, showing us the eleven very large and beautifully appointed guest rooms, the dining room (with seating for 30), the spa, the gym, the horse stables, and the pool.

After the walkabout we had an incredible lunch in the gardens and spent a couple of hours enjoying the pool.

After a taxi ride back into DH, once again, just as we purchased our bus tickets and jumped aboard, the bus pulled away for the hour and a half ride back to Guanajuato.

For more info on the Hacienda las Trancas, click here.

See more pictures here.

Yesterday, after my friend Heather had told me about a printmaking studio and artist’s residence here in Guanajuato, Ty and I paid a visit to Piramidal Grafica, the ex-hacienda and studio of Jim and Jenny Hibbert.

Originally from Portland, where Jim taught printmaking and drawing in a university, they now make their home in what used to be an old tanning factory from the 1700’s. The wells and pools from the old tanning era can still be seen in what is now their garden.

They purchased this place, just about at the top of the hill on the opposite side of the city from our house, as a ruin in 1989 and moved down full-time about five years ago, with all their many tons of art gear.

The hacienda building itself includes their living space, an artist’s apartment which they rent out, a studio area upstairs, a gallery, a huge printmaking studio, a workshop, and an outdoor area which could be used for sculpture. Jim was kind enough to show us around the workshop and gallery – what a wonderful place!

For more info on Piramidal Grafica, click here.

After a coffee at the Italian Coffee Company next to the Basilica, we made our way over to Calle Barranca to visit Carl, the innkeeper that I’d met outside the grocery store when we first arrived here.

Carl is the host of a B&B without the B which occupies a full block of real estate in the Centro area.

He, and his little dog Millie, showed us the four rental suites and the beautiful roof deck,

which has a stunning view out over the city.

On the roof they are experimenting to see which flowers will be able to flourish in the dry heat of Guanajuato. The furnishings, decorations, and colourful design of the house are really beautiful; this would be a great place to stay while in the city.

See more pictures here.

For more information on Carl’s house, click here.

Last night we joined the crowd down at the park below our house to watch the Domingo de Ramos (Palm Sunday) Parade. Including marching bands (which we’ve heard practicing for 2 weeks),

costumed characters in tableaux on the back of trucks re-enacting the life of Jesus,

full-size effigies of Jesus on a donkey and Jesus crucified carried by townspeople,

and a crowd of folks carrying palm fronds, the parade, put together by the Jesuits, snakes its way through the city from the Park, along the main drag of Benito Juarez, to the Templo of the Compania de Jesus, taking about an hour and finishing just before sundown.

Today, to complete our round of Ex-Haciendas and churches, we visited the Ex-Hacienda del Cochero, otherwise known as the Museum of the Holy Inquisition, and the Temple of San Caetano in Valenciana, in the hills above Guanajuato.

The Inquisition Museum contains quite a few dark installations of figures being tortured in various ingenious ways, many instruments of torture, skeletons hanging and lying in graves, cages swinging from the ceiling, and three dimensional holograms (whose purpose here was mysterious to me), all displayed in lurid red, blue, and green coloured lights.

The Templo de San Caetano is a few blocks further up the hill from the Museum and is a stunning salmon-coloured Spanish baroque confection, containing three floor to ceiling golden altars

and a small chapel with a reclining Jesus in a large glass case and a severed head of Christ in a tiny one.

After perusing these, we headed back down the steps to the local loncheria, a small spot with a grill and three plastic tables, where we had a delicious lunch of tortas for about $1.75 each.

Tomorrow morning we leave for Puerto Vallarta; I’ve arranged for a taxi to meet us at 9:30 at the Museo de las Momias – hopefully he’ll show up! I have really, really loved Guanajuato and hope to be back in the not-too-distant future.

See more pictures here.

Dia de las Flores: Death and the Devil visit the Colonial House, Guanajuato

For the Dia de las Flores, Ty and I decorated the front archways of our colonial house; using locally-made masks of Death (a tiny tin skull wearing a black sombrero) and the Devil (a papier mache horned demon mask) we recreated the encounter of Death, the Devil, and the Maiden imagined so starkly in images such as those below by Hans Baldung Grien.

Death and the Maiden by Hans Baldung, 1510

Death and the Maiden by Hans Baldung, 1518

“In this painting a voluptuous young maiden turns to receive the kiss of her lover, only to discover, to her horror, Death. The skeletal figure gently holds her head, a gesture that belies the finality of his impending bite. His patches of wispy hair and rotting skin mock her flowing tresses and supple flesh. The dark setting, unnoticed at first, is a cemetery as she stands on a gravestone, perhaps her own. This Vanitas picture (an image that alludes to the transience of life) typifies Baldung’s predilection for erotically charged twists to more conventional themes, such as the Dance of Death. ” (Web Gallery of Art)

For more information on the Memento Mori, and other installations on this theme that I had done, click here and here.

See all the photos of the Guanajuato piece here.

Altars to the Virgin of Sorrows, Guanajuato

The Seven Sorrows of the Virgin (source: Antonio De Jesús Aguado):

She was unable to find shelter for the birth of her son.
When Mary took the infant Jesus to the temple for circumcision, the prophet Simeon told her, “A sword will go through your heart,” referring to her future suffering for her son.
Mary and Joseph fled to Egypt after King Herod tried to kill Jesus.
Mary and Joseph lost track of Jesus in Jerusalem and found him preaching in the temple.
Mary met her son on the way to Calvary.
The crucifixion of Christ.
The burial of Jesus and Mary’s solitude.

One of the most sumptuous and popular celebrations in Mexico is Semana Santa (Holy Week), which begins with the Viernes de Dolores (Friday of Our Lady of Sorrows), celebrated the last Friday of Lent. It is dedicated to the seven sorrows that Mary suffered before and after her son’s death.

In Mexico the tradition of putting up the altar of sorrows dates from the 16th century, and it was widespread in Mexican homes in the 18th century. The altar was meant to comfort the Virgin Mary, who eight days later would suffer at her son’s death.

Main elements of the altar for Viernes de Dolores:
The elements included in the altar have changed over the years; in earlier times purple and white fabrics were used, as well as mountains (made of cardboard) representing Calvary. The main images are always the Virgin of Sorrows and Christ. The surrounding elements represent the suffering felt by the Virgin Mary when she finds out that her son has been condemned to death.

The most common elements and their meaning include these:
Altar cloths and white flowers: Mary’s purity
Purple cloak: pain and penitence
Bitter oranges: the Virgin’s sorrow. These oranges are painted gold in order to recall the joy of the resurrection.
Fresh chamomile: its colors represent humility (green) and beauty in body and soul (yellow).
Sprouting wheat: represents Christ as Eucharistic bread
Ice cream, flavored water and pumpkin candies: the Virgin’s sweet tears

On Viernes de Dolores the places which have public altars also distribute flavoured water and ice cream. Above is a lineup for water and ice cream at one of the local fruit and vegetable shops; below is the shop’s altar. Lots of big buses rolled into town and disgorged hundreds of schoolkids to take part in Viernes de Dolores. On this page are just some of the altars set up in public places throughout Guanajuato. Many of them utilised the same picture of the Virgin (the one in the photo below). A few branched out and either made their own images or used portraits that looked more like Orthodox Church representations. Some of the larger, more elaborate altars also included sculptural effigies.

The altar below was erected on the hillside right near our place.

This little guy often greets us as we walk up and down the looooonngg flights of stairs to get to our house.

Guanajuato: El Dia de las Flores and the Virgen de los Dolores

Pre-Easter festivities in Guanajuato!

Wow, who knew that this town would be so fabulous at Easter? Well, maybe I should have known, but I didn’t even realise that we’d be here around Semana Santa time. Holy Week is a really big holiday here in central Mexico and the festivities begin the week before Easter, with El Dia de las Flores (Day of the Flowers) and the Viernes de la Virgen de los Dolores (Friday of the Virgin of Sorrows).

The Dia de las Flores (Thursday of the week before Palm Sunday) involves seemingly the entire city; a vast number of flower stands (fresh, paper, and fabric), as well as stands selling toys, Easter eggs, small animals, stuffed creatures and live ones (tiny turtles and hermit crabs), devil and demon masks, cow and steer carrying cases, and the like, are set up everywhere downtown.

The whole city comes out to see and be seen and to purchase flowers and other accoutrements for their own Virgen de los Dolores altars. Using these supplies, altars to the Virgin (who is also the patron of miners) are set up in public places (hotels, restaurants, churches, stores) and in private homes beginning on the Thursday;

on the Friday, these altars are judged by a panel of dignitaries who walk around the city, beginning at daybreak on Friday, and hand out pretty substantial cash prizes for the best.

While the favoured colours seem to be white (for purity) and purple (for sorrows), these altars, and the city itself, are a riot of colours and patterns. Walking around during the day and at night resulted in my becoming almost overwhelmed with the sheer blaze of colour and sensory stimulation – incredible!

Music! The scent of roses! The crush of the crowd!

We stopped to watch some of the more elaborate altars being put together; the most spectacular one we saw was in front of the Teatro Juarez, an incredible neo-classical building downtown.

On the steps was an enormous painting of the virgin, surrounded by arches of fresh white and purple flowers. The crush of the crowd in El Centro, particularly around the Basilica and El Jardin de la Union, was enormous – I swear that everyone in the city was there. My eyeballs were popping non-stop.

Aside from that, we’ve been treated to a major culture hit here, particularly after the poverty of St Lucia. In this small city, there are at least twenty museums, and we’ve been to almost all of them. In the last couple of days, we’ve visited the Don Quixote Iconographic Museum, a small jewel located in a converted colonial house near the Church of San Francisco,

dedicated to all things Quixote (paintings, graphics, and sculpture), the Ex-Convento of San Diego,

and the Museum-House of Diego Rivera, one of Guanajuato’s most famous sons. The most interesting room in the Quixote Museum is the Capilla Cervantes; it contains a bronze scupture of the novelist between a vast fresco-like, two-part painting illustrating episodes from Don Quixote. Guanajuato is the centre of Cervantes study in the Americas and the image of Don Quixote and his sidekick Sancho Panza can be found many places in the city.

Unlike most of the museums we’ve been in here, the Diego Rivera Museum was quite packed, mostly with tour groups.

As well as early works by Rivera, this museum also has rooms dedicated to temporary exhibits of contemporary art. We saw some fabulous bronze figurative sculpture by Javier Marin, one of Mexico’s finest contemporary artists, and realist paintings by Yoel Diaz Galvez.

The building itself is fabulous, many levels and narrow staircases, some leading out to terraces which have a great view out over the city.

This place would make an incredible studio! We also had the pleasure of a concert at the Teatro Cervantes by a guitar duo, Mexicanta, who were really excellent. (ps. I purchased some flowers …)

See more pics here.