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Spain. Camino de Santiago. Utrega- The Journey Continues.

The First day of our Journey North.

overcast 22 °C
View Pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela (Spain) on The Islander's travel map.

Early the next morning, we left our hotel in Pamplona, walked down the street and in a bar near the town hall had a breakfast of toasted bread with olive oil and fresh sliced tomatoes sprinkled with oregano, semi cured cheese and two cups each of hot Spanish coffee. It was delicious. The rain had stopped and the air was fresh with a bite to it. We started walking out of the city, following the signs of Scallop shell, the emblem of Santiago de Compostela. After one km. or so, we came to the edge of the city and the road became a street and then a track going uphill. And it started to rain again. Luckily there was a restaurant nearby and we ran to it and had one more coffee until the downpour became a drizzle. But dark rain clouds still hovered over the horizon, threatening us with another shower if we did not immediately start our journey.

We started our trek uphill, it was humid and hot, the backpack although it was less than six kilos, weighed a ton. The rural track, strewn with stones, not pebbles but good sized rock stones, went up all the way. Holly smoke! I thought, we are not pilgrims, we are here for a morning walk, why this test of our faith laid bare on the rocks? My wife also was distressed and we thought of going back the way we had come, but our determination took hold of our wavering thoughts and we continued onward. To be honest, going back on that treacherous way down, would have been equally hard. We soon learned that on the Camino, there was no way of going back, one simply had to go on.

After going uphill for about 2500 meters, the track levelled out, and we came to a halt. A tree had fallen upon the ground, from one bank to the other of a rivulet swelled up by the recent rains. In order to continue our journey, we had to climb a mound of mud bank, walk over the tree trunk to reach the other side of the rivulet, which was presuming to be a stream. Every thing was wet and slimy and I tried to grasp the tree trunk with my hands, but slipped and fell into the muddy water. My wife helped me climb back and I tried to help her walk over the tree trunk, but the tree was so slippery and our boots full of the mud that we both once again slipped down in the muddy water. Without another word, my wife picked herself up and waded the few metres to reach the other side and climbed up, holding some branches of the tree. I followed. My chance of picking her up in my arms like Tarzan and bringing her safely to the opposite side faded.

We cleaned our boots as best as we could, with the leaves of the tree and with the grass growing on both sides of the track and continued uphill and suddenly we were up on top of the mountain and could see the signs of civilisation in the form of a village, silhouetted against the sky. The sky had cleared too and we saw a group of pilgrims on the other side of the mountain top, going down too. Some were walking, with long staffs in their hands, others were sitting astride horses and donkeys, followed by dogs, with flags of their faith on long poles, waving in the wind. All were silent, the men as well as the animals. Perhaps they too had sighted the village in the distance and were, like us, anxious to reach it, find accommodation, feed their mounts, wash clothes and then sit down and have a glass or two of the local wine and break bread with olives and olive oil, cheese and chorizo. And in silence lay down upon bunk beds and slumber or sleep of the weary traveller, with aching limbs and be up early in the morning to continue on their journey north. We all were on the Camino del Perdon.

The Silent Journey

The Silent Journey

We said hola! bueno dias (hello, goog morning) to our silent fellow travellers, but received no response, they all seemed to be absorbed in their own thoughts, so I murmured Vaya con Dios (go with God), and continued our way down and were soon on the edge of the village. We calculated that we had barely done 10-12 kilometres, whereas it was our intention to do at least twenty kms. every day. It was late afternoon when we reached the village which was called Uterga (province of Navarra) and the Albergue, a private place run by a family of welcoming hosts.

We took off our dirty boots, slid off our backpacks and sat down on the floor outside. To our surprise there already were many other travellers inside the place, mostly females (young and middle aged) some were unpacking their things on the bunk beds, others washing clothes or hanging them on the lines outside in the patio. There were 18 bunk beds and charge was 10 euros per person. We handed our Credenciales which were duly stamped, paid the money and settled down until there was a chance to do the same chores, shower and rest. The albergue also had a restaurant so later we went in and had some food. The day was turning into evening and in the dormitory all was quiet, so we also went in, changed our clothes and lay down on the bunk beds to sleep. It was our first day on the Camino de Santiago.

Posted by The Islander 20:53 Archived in Spain Tagged landscapes mountains beaches churches buildings bus monuments santiago backpacking pilgrimage camino air-travel Comments (0)

Mexico- Cancún

The city and marketss

sunny 31 °C
View Vamos a Mexico. (Mexico Here we Come) on The Islander's travel map.

Last night when we returned to the hotel, the extra mattress promised by the hotel people was not in the room. When I tried to switch on the table lamp, I found that the light bulb was broken, neither the radio nor the T.V. were working. So Alex went down and asked them to please bring the mattress and replace the light bulb and fix the radio and the T.V. After some delay the student/worker came up with a rubber mattress, a bed sheet and a pillow and put it down on the floor. He told us that they did not have a spare light bulb to replace the broken one, and every thing will be fixed on the morrow, as it was late and no electrician would come that far from the city. When I asked him, he confessed that he was not a university student but working as an all job man, also sleeping on the floor until the place was refurbished.

The night some how passed, when I awoke early in the morning, the sun light was streaming in through the window, the curtains were thin and transparent and soon the room was hot.

A sea view

A sea view

The View from the window
We got up and got ready. From the kitchen below they brought us a tray of fresh fruit and orange juice, toast & marmalade and coffee and as you can see from the photos, it was a nice breakfast, which refreshed us.


Breakfast for two

The Sun over troubled water

Cancún is divided in two parts, La Ciudad Cancún and La Zona Hotelera. We had found this to be in Tulum too, zona hotelera exclusively for the tourists. Although by Mexican law, as it is in Spain also, all people have the right of access to the beach, to walk and swim. However we had seen the day before that this will not be possible, all the resorts in this area were patrolled by security guards, who would not even permit us to go near and talk to them. There was no access to the beach. So we decided to go to the city (La Ciudad Cancún), have a look at the local fruit and vegetable markets and afterwards, take a bus and visit the various beaches which lie on that side.

So we took the bus which dropped us at the main bus station where we had arrived. From there we walked downtown (El Centro), the Avenida Tulum which is a wide street, full of shops, restaurants and banks. Alex changed some Euros for Mexican Pesos and we had a cup of coffee at 7/11, the American chain of mini stores and we window shopped but there was really nothing of interest to buy. Same brands of clothes and shoes, thanks to globalisation, have invaded all the countries and I personally get sick to see Starbucks, McDonald and KFC infesting even South East Asian countries. It is alright that these companies operate in the north and south American markets, but super malls and hyper markets owned and run mostly by U.S.A companies is intolerable. That is my view.

After walking more than a kilometre, we reached the municipal market 28. Outside the market were vendors with carts, selling fresh orange and coconut juice and and cold "Chaya" flavoured water.I was told that was a nutritious plant which is used in preparing many other recipes. Alex had a glass of fresh coconut juice and I had Chaya flavoured water. To tell the truth, it tasted like ginseng.

Although it was noon, the place was full with diners at various restaurants there. I looked at the menu of three restaurants, at the plates of food on the tables of diners, to see what the favourite dish was. The traditional dish of Pescado a la Tikin-Xic, fish marinated with annatto(a common yellow food colouring, which is a substitute for saffron and gives a rich colour to the food), sour oranges, peppers, tomatoes, red onions, and spices, seemed to be the popular dish. This fish is grilled over charcoal, wrapped in banana leaf, and soaked in beer and olive oil. And served with a side dish of vegetables.

On the menus were also the typical cuisine from Yucatan, "Relleno negro( a dark mole paste made from many spices, to prepare chicken, pork or turkey) and "Cochinita Pibil" , a recipe consisting of pork prepared with annatto and sour orange, sliced and accompanied by red onions and black beans, eaten with corn tortilla or tacos.

We chose a small family run restaurant , which was full of locals, and had to wait about fifteen minutes for a table to be free. Alex ordered Pescado a la Tikin-Xic, and I chose a bowl of Sopa de Lima, a very tasty and light chicken broth, served with shredded chicken, deep fried tortilla chips, and Mexican lime juice and a plate of grilled shrimps with yellow rice, vegetables and onion salad. I tasted a little of the fish and found it quite heavy, as if it had been cooked with butter. But it was fresh, firm and looked very good sitting on the plate. Alex enjoyed it.

It was late afternoon when we finished and walked back to the bus station. Since we could not decide whether to head for the beaches or finish visiting the shopping centre in Zona Hotelera, we decided on the latter and took another bus to go there. As we had suspected, the whole area was nothing but hotels, shopping malls, fast food and big name business. During the two days we had seen nothing of any tourists anywhere and it was the same in this vast area dedicated to shoppers. Almost all the places were empty, low season or the threat of violence in the north, which at that time had the whole country in the grip of fear, had done much harm to the economy of Mexico and we could feel it in Cancún too.
In the evening when we returned to the hotel, the light bulb had been changed in the room but the T.V. set had not been fixed. I did not fancy the idea of another night sleeping on the floor either. We decided to go to the Isla Mujeres next day.

Posted by The Islander 07:39 Archived in Mexico Tagged sunsets_and_sunrises mountains lakes beaches churches landscape bus monuments backpacking air-travel Comments (0)

MEXICO-The Road to Cancun

Cancun the Optimistic

overcast 31 °C
View Vamos a Mexico. (Mexico Here we Come) on The Islander's travel map.

We left Tulum in the morning, buses and colectivos which stop at any place you are waiting, run to Puerto Carmen and Cancun. The bus travel in Mexico is easy and comfortable, buses are air-conditioned, you receive a half litre bottle of mineral water on entering the bus, and without the noisy loud music which is played inside the bus, it Will be a perfect way of travelling. But this nuisance exists not only in Mexico, we have found that it exists in Sri Lanka, Thailand, India too.

The bus journey to Playa Carmen took less than one hour, when the bus stopped near the harbour, I saw from the window of the bus the boats and many people strolling about, and I told Alex that we should get down there. I was not so keen on going to Cancun, a city noted not for any historical or architectural monuments, but to the mass tourism. We have seen the beautiful cities around the world destroyed by this phenomena and in Spain itself, the islands like the Canaries, Balearic and even the South coast of Spain turned into shopping malls, cement buildings, gaudy bars, alcoholic dens infested by binge drinkers.
However, before we could decide whether to get down there, the bus restarted and we reached Cancun. On this journey we had not stayed at many hostels frequented by backpackers as Alex knew I preferred individual accommodation. So he had missed out on meeting the young crowd, but now I was not feeling good and we decided to find a quiet place to stay.

In front of the bus station was a billboard announcing a comfortable hotel, so we crossed the road and enquire at the reception desk if there was a double bedroom available. Yes there was and we could see it too. The available room on the third floor, after traversing a long corridor was shabby and looked down at the bus station and at the city sprawled on the right. We said sorry, we wanted a quiet room at the back. We came out of the hotel and asked at the bus station if there was any tourist information office nearby. A man standing nearby, who turned out to be a hotel agent told us about a new hotel in the Zona Hotelera, which was not so expensive. He wrote down the address and the bus number which would take us to that place on Boulevard Kukulcan. He told us that he was an student and was working as a hotel representative to make some money. Which later turned out to be untrue.

DSC05651.jpgThe Hotel front

DSC05650.jpg The Hotel entrance
Swimming Pool

Swimming Pool

We took the bus and asked the driver to drop us at the hotel, but he told us that he did not know it, and we should keep a look- out from the window. Looking out we saw large tourist complexes "resorts" behind 12 meter walls, guarded by security personnel, there were no street numbers and the bus took us to the last stop, near Hotel Melia. Disappointed, we started walking back, asking a security guard or a passerby, but nobody could tell us about this hotel. After walking quite some distance, we at last found a building, a makeshift sign posted outside, gave away the secret that it was a hotel.

We entered the building, hot from the long walk and saw that it was a beautiful building, a young couple were spreading bedsheets on the floor. There was a strong smell of paint and their clothes were spattered with it. We said hi! and shook hands. The girl was about 30 years old, the man little younger and they told us that they had rented the whole building and were planning to turn it into a hotel. That we were the third party which had come to stay. We wished them all the luck and showed our interest in having a look at the room. They told us that the rooms at the ground and first floor were as yet not ready, but a large room on the second floor was. So we left our things on the ground floor and walked up to the second floor.

Garden view looking out to sea

Garden view looking out to sea

As you can see from the photos, it was a pleasant room, there was one big bed in the centre of the room, a T.V. set and a radio on a corner table. The bathroom was clean. We said we liked the room and how much was the rent. The rent we were told was 500 pesos, but could have it for 480 pesos since we had been sent by their representative. I told them that we were looking for cheaper accommodation and made a move to go out. At that minute a very young girl and the representative, who had given us the address, entered the room, we talked a little more and he told us that we could have it for 450 pesos. I told him that one bed was not big enough for two and he told us that he will bring up a spare mattress and one of us could sleep on the floor. We said OK! The reason we took the room was the beautiful view of the sea from our room and from the small balcony.
We went down, picked up our backpacks, went up again and sprawled on the bed. We were tired. It was late afternoon and from the window we could see the sea and in the distance the outline of Isla Las Mujeres, which is just a fifteen minute hop by ferry.
A view from the terrace
Adjacent to our hotel was a large mansion with a private landing place and in the evening we saw a boat berthed out in the sea. The whole beach are is private, belonging to the resorts which look out to the sea but from the street are totally private and enclosed by tall walls. We later went down to eat something nearby, as the city centre was far and the only way was to take a bus. We saw that the beach was not safe for bathing, the shore was full of dirt and algae and quite windy.

The restaurant about three hundred meters from the hotel was empty, only three tables were full, each occupied by a couple. We sat on the terrace facing the sea, but the wind was so strong that we moved inside the covered area. It is my rule never to ask a hotel clerk or receptionist to recommend a restaurant, although I have broken this rule a few times, as I did now. The restaurant was expensive, menu very limited and when we asked the waiter as to what could we eat, he suggested Paella and Squid. When we asked why the restaurant was empty, we were told that it was off season and there were not many tourists. We gathered that the prices were high because it was in the area of the resorts.

We had cold beers each, ordered Paella and Squid in garlic sauce as suggested by the waiter, an elderly stout man of over fifty. After a delay of nearly forty minutes, by which time we had another beer and eaten a plate of green salad, the waiter brought a tray of Paella, rice floating in liquid, a few shrimps and a few shell fish, three slices of red pepper and some pieces of chicken. And it was cold. I knew that the paella had come out of tin and shrimps and other ingredients had been added to make it look fresh.

The restaurant where we had cold paella
The sunset over Carribean Sea. In the distance Isla Mujeres

I called the waiter and told him point blank what I thought of his paella and he confessed that since it was off season and there were no customers, the cook had opened a tin. So I told him to cancel the order of Squid in garlic sauce. We had hoped that he would apologise or offer us a free drink, may not charge for the beer or the salad which was nothing but limpid cucumber, cabbage, tomato and onions. But he did nothing of the sort and we paid 72 pesos for paella, salad and beer apart. I know that paella looks good in the photo but in reality was uncooked rice and unappetising.
And at night it rained.


Posted by The Islander 09:49 Archived in Mexico Tagged sunsets_and_sunrises lakes beaches churches landscape bus monuments backpacking air-travel Comments (0)

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