As I listen to Vicente Fernandez’s deep, heart-wrenching vocals echo in my ear, I am brought back to the fast-paced streets of Mérida, where I spent hours wandering the century-old paths in an attempt to grasp Mexico’s fire and flame.
In the past couple of years, my love for backpacking has brought me to set foot in a number of countries. Now, it seems like a sham for me to say that I’ve visited Mexico, when 10 days in the Yucatán Peninsula can only be categorized as a struggling attempt to capture the essence of this vibrant region.
For many, Mexico may be synonymous with Cancún. The resort-dominate city sits on the Caribbean’s peaceful waters. Its nightlife and beautiful weather attract millions of visitors a year. For many, Mexico is synonymous with carefree vacationing. Unlimited piña colada and mouth-watering tacos in lavish restaurants.
Yet, in recent years, the fight over narco turfs in Cancún rose with the rise in tourism. It is unfortunate to see that the once peaceful waters of this beach-side city be subjugated to intensifying clashes. It is frustrating to see foreigners who come to the city for fast pleasures, leave behind a blazing trail of irreversible losses.
Nonetheless, the country I saw was vibrant and warm. The people cheerful and accommodating. As always with my stubborn curiosity, it was difficult to commit to one city. Despite, in theory, the week-and-half trip was supposed to be relaxing, I was whisked away by the need to explore other noted destinations.
In 10 days, with a little help from Google and lots of convincing from locals, I managed to squeeze in 4 cities and a handful of tourist attractions at a decently steady pace.
From vibrant Mérida to cozy Valladolid, from the gorgeous lagoon in Bacalar to beach town Tulum, I intentionally left the hustles and bustles of Cancún for a future getaway.
Being as ignorant as I was, I thought prices in Mexico would be similar to that in South Asia.
That’s not the case at all. A single bus ride from the Cancún airport to downtown Mérida took a fifth of my budget- some $40 after conversion.
But it was totally worth it. 3 hours after escaping the pouring rain at the airport, I just about caught the sunset in this lovely city after a comfy nap on the transit bus.
As the capital of Yucatán, Mérida is the largest city in the Peninsula. The city houses beautiful colonial architecture transformed by Spanish conquerors and broad, spacious boulevards influenced by the Parisian cityscape. Lavish villas, government housings, and royal households sit along Paseo de Montejo.
My host was a laid-back soul who lived on the outskirts of downtown. He shares his spacious bungalow with his sister, a cat, and a puppy. During my 3 day visit, I discovered a burning love for torta, which consists of a scope of delicious meaty sauce atop fluffy white bread.
Other than feeding my stomach, the city fed my soul. On my second day, I spent some 6 hours in the burning summer heat wandering around streets and streets of colorful houses, hidden statues, and beaming history. From the buzzing of Plaza Grande to the magnificent Altare della Patria, it was a treat seeing the everchanging colors as I ventured into differing neighborhoods.
The next day, I met up with Melanie, a traveler from Seattle who was just as eager to visit Uxmal-an ancient city from the Mayan period. A few hours away by bus, the historical ground is home to some handsomely preserved Puuc style buildings. Although it isn’t as well-known as Chichén Itzá, Uxmal’s Pyramid of the Magician and the Governor’s Palace are definitely worth a visit. The advantage, was, of course, the lack of tourists.
From Terminal TAME, we took the Sur Bus to Campeche that stops at Uxmal en-route, an air-conditioned ride that cost around US $7. Although it’s pretty easy to purchase tickets on the spot, it might be better to grab them beforehand during high-season.
On our way back, Melanie told me that she was planning on heading to Valladolid to see Chichén Itzá. Despite being hesitant to squeeze another city onto my somewhat packed schedule, I decided it had been a hot minute since I’ve crossed another World Wonder off my bucket list.
This is the beauty of traveling solo. Within an hour, my plans changed from staying in Mérida for a week to embracing another two cities- Valladolid and Bacalar, a small town with apparently, unbelievably blue waters.
The next morning, I boarded a bus to Valladolid, where we met two amazing girls that studied agriculture and planting. We all went to Cenote Suytun before myself and Melanie headed to Chichén Itzá the next day.
Cenotes are a common phenomenon in the Yucatánn Peninsula. As natural sinkholes, these geological forms come in all shape and sizes. Some sit graciously in the open while others are underground and hidden. Cenote Suytun can be categorized within the latter. Just about 15 minutes outside the city, the space was barely touched throughout our visit. Only a handful of people were within sight, which was great since the setting was rather small. The entrance fee was a couple of dollars and everyone was offered a life jacket.
The minute we headed downstairs and entered the cavern, I was awestruck by the magical sight. Stalactites hung from the ceiling, daylight and water streamed through an opening above. The water was chilly and refreshing. And our swims were accompanied by a handful of fish.
After an hour or so, we headed to the girls’ house for some salad and juice. That night, we spent attempting to enjoy the Sound & Light show at the Convent de San Bernardino de Siena. (Attempting because we missed the show for some piña colada, what gives 🙂 )
Bacalar, Quintana Roo
Although Bacalar was a last minute decision, it quickly became my favorite destination. Not only was the town adorable, but the vibe was completely relaxed. Here, people enjoyed their days by the lagoon under the sun. Everyone seemed to know each other.
My host was completely fascinating. A scientist (how cool!) from India, she met her German boyfriend in Congo before they decided to relocate to Mexico. They recently purchased a tour boat that he operates during the day. She is known in the area for hosting delicious Indian feasts that spiced up my soul. For those visiting Bacalar, do contact Jey and participate in this fun-loving event.
That night, we met a couple of German travelers and quickly became friends with the happy bunch. A group of childhood friends, they planned yearly getaways around the world. After dancing the night away and going for swims/ burning our skins off the next day, it was inevitable that Jey invited them over for lunch on their last day in town. So there I was, helping cook an Indian meal for a bunch of foreigners in a small town in Mexico.
It was a curious adventure.
The most intriguing aspect of Bacalar was the number of adrift artists that wandered the streets. Creatives from around the world come and stay by the lagoon, turning the town into a hippie utopia. Some artists would negotiate a stay and a couple meals for their brilliant work. When I was just about leaving Bacalar, Jey began talks with a couple people to re-brand her simple bungalow. From its original white walls and minimalist surroundings to a glory of colors, it is not difficult to see how talented these people were!
Tulum, Quintana Roo
After chatting with the German group during lunch, I was quickly convinced that the best way to reach my last destination was with them and their minivan. As quick as were my days in Bacalar, I grabbed my backpack and was on my way to Tulum, another beautiful beach-side town in the state of Quintana Roo.
The first night, I decided to stay at a hostel- my first in almost 4 years! Although the place was adorable, I quickly realized it wasn’t for me. It just wasn’t too exciting talking to people who shared the same story. But since Melanie, my Seattle friend was stopping in Tulum as well, I gave it a try.
Quickly enough, I contacted a host in the area and moved over. Nico hand braided beautiful pieces for sell. His work is gorgeous, using big bold colors that often incorporated a stunning solid mineral as the center piece.
At the time, Nico was hosting another traveler as well. A Turkish native, Belve was biking from LA to Rio, an estimated year-long journey through some of the roughest neighborhoods in the world.
Rough, I say, because just months prior, Belve’s biking friend Holger-an experienced German biker lost his life while passing Chiapas. Belve was devasted. “Biking is a lonely journey,” he tells me, “when you meet a fellow traveler on the road, they become family.” He biked with Holger for a month before they parted ways.
Honestly, I have immense respect for travelers I meet on the road, especially solo travelers that go on extremely long journeys. Despite traveling solo, I’m rarely alone. For those that go into the wilderness with nothing but nature and silence for accompaniment, it can pose as an incredible challenge.
Not to mention how small the world is, that when I told my friend, a fellow biker this story, he exclaimed that he was an avid reader of Holger’s travel blogs.
Final Thoughts & Quirky Stories
Although my time in Mexico was short, it was extremely significant. Some personal matters rendered the trip one of the most difficult, yet needed.
But the story isn’t over. Other than getting food poisoning on the last day that lasted late into the night, onto the bus, into the flight, and all the way home, I forgot my Ipad at my host’s place in Bacalar. (re: try holding down bad tacos for 10 hours straight, with only pit-stops between each leg of the trip, was a catastrophe)
As a small town, Bacalar had no major postal offices. Mailing from their local office would cost more than the Ipad itself. So my host in Tulum helped set up a WhatsApp group that gathered a couple of incoming/outgoing travelers. After a handful of people and almost a month-long journey, the Ipad arrived safe and sound at my door.
People are amazing.
The roundtrip flight from Texas to Cancún was US $160 (seeing that flying from Canada to anywhere would cost twice as much, this was a treat!)
- Bus from the Cancún airport to Merida was around 710 pesos.
- Bus from Merida to Uxmal was around 151 pesos (return)
- Entrance to Uxmal was 232 pesos (foreigners)
- Bus from Merida to Valladolid was 190 pesos
- Bus from Valladolid to Chichén Itzá was 52 pesos (return)
- Chichén Itzá Entrance 232 pesos*(foreigners)
- Valladolid to Bacalar was 189 pesos
- Tulum Hostel was 250 pesos
- Spent the last night pampering myself at Hotel Flor, a cute little place $30
- Tulum-Cancún airport was 242 pesos
- Food/Drinks/Miscellaneous= 750 pesos (mind you beers were more expensive than I thought)
In total, I spent 2998 pesos (US 158) + $160 + $30 = 348 US for a 10-day trip, not too bad, considering that I opt for comfortable buses and lots of dining out!
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The Canadian West Coast is a fusion of high mountain low seas. Just above the calm Pacific waters, lies a city modern and sleek. The tranquil landscape is in stark contrast to the bustling streets housing the hustle of some 5 million people. It is in this urban layout that over 400,000 ethnic Chinese have decided to establish their home.
Out of a handful of coastal cities, Vancouver has become synonym with metropolitan living. Neon signs light up the downtown core, Skytrains speed past picturesque urban decays and skyscrapers tower over busy streets. Yet, Vancity’s seeming frenzy is balanced by the serenity offered only minutes away. To escape the constraint of everyday life, a walk in Stanley Park can do great wonders.
Of course, the Chinese migration story was not triggered by the beauty of the West Coast. Like most minorities, the Chinese flew west seeking better opportunities. When BC joined the Confederation in 1871, the Dominion government agreed to construct a railway connecting East and West Canada. To minimize cost, Chinese laborers were employed to build the structure. Around the same time, the Gold Rush attracted tens of thousands of Chinese people, establishing a permanent base for Chinese residency in Western Canada.
Yet, racial segregation remains prominent. The federal government began collecting head tax from minorities and passed anti-Chinese bills as with their Australian counterpart. When the Chinese Immigration Act was repealed in 1947, the already established Chinese-Canadian population began receiving their families from abroad. In the 1990s, another wave of the Chinese population moved to Vancouver prior to the Hong Kong handover.
These stages of mass migration led Vancouver to become the “most Asian city” outside of Asia.
In the past decade or so, Toronto and Vancouver have been the go-to cities for new immigrants. With Van’s history and modernity, countless ‘fuerdai’-children of the nouveau riche in China have been enrolled in BC’s education system. Sending their children abroad serve a number of purposes. Aside from the obvious education and healthcare benefits Canada provides, some left to avoid sociopolitical scandals (yes corruption, I see you), some to land a citizenship or attain property, and others to flaunt their wealth without needing to hide it from the Chinese public.
As such, recent years saw to investors from mainland China blamed for skyrocketing real estate prices and housing unaffordability. Coincidentally, I came across Ultra Rich Asian Girls, a Vancouver-based reality web series showcasing the affluent lifestyles of the (daughters of the) rich and famous.
With these claims in mind, I arrived in Vancouver looking for Chinese-dominated casinos and streets, bars and restaurants.
My stay in Vancouver was quite different from usual. Located in the Joyce-Collingwood neighborhood, the house is a traveler’s haven. With 7 roommates and lots more coming and going, ‘Neverland’ was always full of energy. Aside from students and travelers, street musicians and office professionals lived in the home. The one place I could relate such a venture to was my brief stay in Berlin.
Obviously, it wasn’t here that I stumbled upon the noted Canadian Chinatown.
The day after my arrival, one of the housemates- Thibaud, a civil engineer from France, took me around Vancouver. As it was early December, I was lucky enough to witness a city without the thickness of winter fog that crept in days after. Following a walk around downtown, we stumbled upon the taping of The Flash. Being ‘Hollywood North’, the Vancouver area serves as the filming location for a large film and television production industry. So it’s no surprise for the city to act as a star-spotting getaway for Canadians and the like.
Afterwards, we headed to Stanley Park- possibly the most noteworthy attraction in the area. The park itself was vast. Due to the near-zero weather, there were little people walking around as would during summer days. We decided to walk along the coast towards Third Beach for the best sunset view.
There is the option to drive the ring road, walk, or rent a bicycle in Stanley Park. No matter the mode of transport, it’s worth touring the entire ring road which will lead you to Third Beach. With the best water in the Lower Mainland beaches, it is a treat to relax against the many logs, people-watch or simply enjoy the view of the North Shore. My luck goes that just moments before sunset, a blanket of fog washed ashore. The entirety of the Vancouver skyline disappeared within minutes’ time.
That evening, I contacted one of my friends who lived downtown and crashed his place for the night. While talking about rental prices, we again came across the topic of Chinese investors.
It was true, he said- Chinese buyers have contributed heavily to the rise in housing cost. However, lots of domestic and foreign non-Chinese investors have been discounted from such blames. Moreover, Chinese investment in Van’s housing market has dropped drastically after the city introduced the foreign buyer tax. Nonetheless, the Chinese population in the city remains potent.
The next day, I decided to embark on a venture as I do in all cities- googling a cheap eatery downtown and walking over no matter the distance. I’ve always been anti-public transportation when traveling. In addition to the added pennies, it forgoes a large part of the city often ousted by locals and tourists alike. Yet, for me, it is the most standard neighborhoods that may best represent the feel of a city. As such, I often find myself dragging my feet along highways and deserted streets many claim unsafe. It is with dumb luck that I often walk unscathed and stumble upon the most interesting of situations/ scenery.
I found Viet Sub Vietnamese Cuisine, a little-hidden spot on Robson Street with Viet subs to die for. The meal took about 5 minutes to come out- the baguette toasted to a crisp yet maintain a fluffy center. A combination of juicy flavors topped with cilantro served on a fitting amount of ingredients made the first bite taste like heaven. Maybe it was because I’ve yet a meal in 12 hours, but as a budget traveler, I’d be lying if I didn’t say this was one of my better experimental foodie ventures. After snatching a seat at its crowded bar stool, I gulped down a $5 special sub and began my urban exploration for the day.
However, my luck had run out after a couple days in BC. The city was incredibly foggy, with the top half of most skyscrapers out of sight. The only lively place that night was Gastown, a popular area with loads of hip eateries and indie galleries.
Gastown was Vancouver’s first downtown core. Over time, it became a social hub integrating contemporary culture, boutiques, and other small businesses. With the number of bars and restaurants, the district carries on a vivid nightlife no matter the weather.
That night, a friend invited me to a female architects’ party in the area. Filled with wine and cheese, the women spoke of public space in the Vancouver context. It was such an interesting sight, thinking that a year ago, I was in India exploring the question of women’s access to public space in Delhi.
Despite the number of things to do in the city, the Harbour Front remains my favorite spot. During the couple days of my stay, I spent numerous hours walking along the waters. The beauty of Vancouver’s harbor not only reside in its photographic nature but also in its assertion of Van’s diverse cityscape. Like Istanbul’s cross-strait contrast in East and West or Shanghai’s cross-river contrast in old and new, one side of Van’s harbor exhibits its futuristic skyline while the other captures the grandiose designs of mother nature.
It’s the beauty of contradiction that truly captives me.
For Aisha, there are a ton of budget activities in addition to the selected few during my brief introduction to Vancity.
One of my first destinations was the Pacific Spirit Regional Park which offers a network of trails contained in nearly 4 miles of forest. I was mesmerized by the old growth trees and the smell of cedar that filled the air. I didn’t mind getting lost because I eventually stumbled upon Spanish Bank beach. That is what I call a rewarding hike.
The Capilano Suspension Bridge Park is one of Vancouver’s most popular tourist attractions and with good reason. The suspension bridge itself is 450 feet across and 230 feet high, which made for a thrilling walk over the Capilano River and a fabulous view of the surrounding rainforest. I also got to explore a network of footbridges, stairs, and platforms. I’d stop occasionally to read nature-inspired quotes that were left at different places in this labyrinth in the trees. One that stood out to me was: “Trees are sanctuaries. Whoever knows how to speak to them, whoever knows how to listen to them, can learn the truth…” – Herman Hesse.
Located on Vancouver’s waterfront, Canada Place is a well-known national landmark where a number of community events are hosted. Although nothing was happening the day I went, I was still treated to a spectacle. You can take a walk on the Canadian Trail which is divided into 13 equal sections to represent the 10 provinces and three territories of Canada or stare at the Sails of Light that are illuminated every night with a variety of vibrant colors and displays. The glimmering reflection of the sails on the water was pretty magical.
There aren’t too many places where a mountain with an elevation of 1,231m can easily be reached from downtown. Known as “The Peak of Vancouver”, it is one of the city’s premier attractions. During the winter, Grouse Mountain attracts skiers, snowboarders and sledders galore, but in the summertime, it’s a popular hiking destination. I decided to try ziplining for the first time and I screamed so loud, I wouldn’t be surprised if everyone on that mountain heard me. If you take the lift up the mountain, you can see most of the city below – it’s a truly breathtaking view.
As for Aisha, dense forests, stunning beaches, majestic mountains and friendly faces are some of the many reasons to visit this Canadian hot-spot. And one of the biggest perks of taking a trip to Vancity is that you can have a great time without spending an arm and a leg. As the third-largest Canadian city with a population of 2.5 million, she amazed at how laid-back the locals are. But after just a week of spending time outdoors and enjoying nature, she was feeling pretty relaxed herself. You can find Aisha, a creative entrepreneur, marketing strategist and singer-songwriter who lives in Toronto, Canada, on intunemarketing.ca.
After half a week in Vancouver, I can’t say for certain that I felt like I’ve lived in Chinatown. Aside from Chinese as obviously the third (sometimes only) official language on billboards and advertisements, I didn’t encounter as many of my people as I thought I would. Maybe the cold has pushed the majority of wealthy Chinese abroad and kept others indoors. Or maybe, my area of tactical observance is poorly selected.
Personally, I think it’s my upbringing in Toronto, a city so diverse in its sociocultural background that my unconsciously trained mind has adapted to the many faces of Canada.
Victoria, British Columbia, located on beautiful Vancouver Island , is a popular tourist destination in Canada. However, as so many tourist destinations tend to be, Victoria is not exactly known for its affordability. As someone who’s lived in the city for the past few years, I can attest to the high costs both of living in and touring around Victoria, but if you know where to look, you can still find breath-taking and exciting activities for just a few dollars, or less.
1. The Problem: Flowers and expansive green spaces are the epitomai of peace and tranquility, but Butchart Gardens’ ~$30 price tag may just be a tad too costly.
The Solution: A stroll through Beacon Hill Park
The Butchart Gardens is a stunning masterpiece of color and life – but the entry fee could leave you gasping for air. In my opinion, the best way to get a free taste of all that glorious west coast flora is to wander through Beacon Hill Park. Not only will you see beautifully arranged flowers, you’ll also catch sight of various duck species, free-roaming peacocks, and possibly a Great Blue Heron!
(Resident note: If you go for the flowers but stay for the wildlife, you’ll want to wander into the adjacent petting zoo, too. Bonus: the Pacific Ocean is just a block away.)
2. The Problem: Victoria’s lively local music scene comes with a hefty price tag.
The Solution: A walk down Government Street
Government Street in Victoria is where all the buskers come to roost. At any given time, you might catch sight of a ukulele player, an acoustic guitarist, a harpist, someone playing the hammer dulcimer, or Darth Vader on the violin (yes, really). Absorb it all as you walk, or sit for a while with your gelato and toss a dollar or two in the hat.
3. The Problem: You’re dying to surround yourself with the Pacific Ocean, but hiring a boat or catching a whale-watching tour is a bit beyond budget.
The Solution: Take to the sea on your own terms
There are many ways to get out on the ocean in Victoria, most of them affordable. You can rent a paddleboard or kayak (usually about $20 an hour) or wade in at Willows or Spiral Beach, both just a 10-minute drive from downtown. If you’re eager to feel the rumble of a boat engine beneath you, you can always catch the water taxi, which costs just $6 and will take you from place to place throughout the Inner and Upper Harbours.
If you want to be surrounded by water but stay on dry land, the Breakwater is the place to be. Jutting more than 2,500 feet into the ocean, this raised path prevents waves from shaking boats in the marina and really lets you feel you’re in the midst of the sea. On a windy day, you can walk along the stepped side and get thoroughly soaked, or stay above and just enjoy the salty air. Breakwater Lighthouse perches at the end of the wall, so you can check that coastal must-see off your list, too.
4. The Problem: You bypassed the Vancouver Aquarium, but would still love to see some aquatic wildlife.
The Solution: Hit Fisherman’s Wharf
Fisherman’s Wharf is a quaint little floating house neighborhood just outside downtown Victoria, complete with gift shops, kayak rentals, and delicious food. The main draw, though, might be the adorable seals that flock to the pier. The restaurants sell little cups of fish bits to tourists eager to feed them, but watching is just as much fun. At any given time, there could be five or six of the spotted, puppy-faced creatures vying for your attention (not to mention dozens of seagulls), and their entourage might even be joined by a hungry otter.
5. The Problem: It’s Victoria, so, you’d be remiss if you didn’t take tea like proper British royalty. But a formal Afternoon Tea comes with a royal price tag.
The Solution: Opt instead for a cup o’ tea at The Empress
Afternoon Tea at any of the ritzy dining locales in downtown Victoria can cost between $40 and $100 dollars – it’s a neat and yummy experience, but not practical for many. Just because you can’t swallow the price tag, doesn’t mean you can’t sip fancy green tea in itty-bitty cups while brushing shoulders with the rich and fabulous.
The Fairmont Empress, a beautiful waterfront hotel that first opened in 1908, serves pots of tea in their swank dining room for $8. It’s well worth the cost to sit in luxury in the splendidly renovated space, among ivory pillars with gold accents and regal wood floors. Savour each drop, and don’t forget to lift your pinkie!
Whether you’re flush or pinching pennies, Victoria is a welcoming city filled with great architecture, delicious eats, and loads of things to see and do. Next time you’re in town, don’t let a thin wallet keep you from experiencing everything this west coast treasure has to offer!
A full-time freelance writer, Shannon Kirk is a transplant from the Canadian prairies, and now makes her home on beautiful Vancouver Island. From traveling to alternative health to fantasy, her enduring love for the written word means she’s always eager to learn about a new topic and share it with a passionate audience. You can find Shannon typing away at www.shannon-kirk.com.
If you’d like to submit a guest post to Beyond my Border, contact me!
How do I put California into words?
The reflection of the San Clemente pier on rhythmic waves during a sizzling sunset.
The unpleasant heat wave glazing Hollywood Blvd.
The fresh oysters off the Santa Monica Harbor.
The steep valleys and high hills that define the streets of San Francisco.
How do I define California?
Vast, diverse, patient.
Unsurprisingly, California is not your typical budget-friendly getaway. But since I was offered a travel scholarship to attend a conference in Orange County, CA, I jumped at the opportunity to acquaint myself with some of the most mentioned cities along the West Coast.
My grasp of the Golden State was a 20-day venture along the Pacific shoreline. In the land of opportunity, an endearment often associated with the late-19th century California Gold Rush, the pursuit of new beginnings and great wealth instigated one of the largest mass migrations to the western hemisphere. From the rich and fabulous to technical accessories, the evergreen state has become the epitome of the American Dream.
I arrived in Orange County expecting hot weather and beach sightings. In fact, my 20” x 14” was packed with short shorts and summer dresses. However, the April night proved incredibly resilient to global warming. A bit dazed by Orange County’s similarity with my hometown, my friend drove me through wide streets and high lights to his apartment near Main Street.
During the conference, we stayed at Chapman University. The campus was located a few minutes away from a street dotted with restaurants, bars, and palm trees. It was then that I found myself officially in California.
Huntington Harbour & Newport Beach Port
Huntington Beach and Newport Beach are both popular coastal areas in Orange County. The harbors each house a wooden pier that dips deep into the sea. Their sandy pavements are streets away from restaurants & pubs, unifying calm ocean waters with the hype of weekend outings.
Just south of Orange County, sits a more vibrant Santa Ana. My friend took me to a community brunch featuring homemade delights and freshly squeezed orange juice. A Mariachi band played on stage while desserts, breakfast items, and fruits lined the street. The happy-go-lucky atmosphere brought me back to days of Berlin’s buzzing Christmas markets.
During brunch, I began chatting with a lady next to me. Tina turned out to be a Disney executive just home from Shanghai’s park opening preparations. After exclaiming how surprised she was that I’ve never been to Disney, she offered me a two-park inclusive ticket to the original Disneyland in Anaheim, California.
So I dropped my plans, picked up my bag and spent a day at Disney.
She definitely made a childhood dream come true.
Having spent 6 days in Orange County, I couldn’t wait to get to LA and revisit my city roots.
A youth ticket from Irvine to LA Union Station was $8.00 through Metrolink. When I arrived at LA’s fabulous central station, I made the stupid, determined mistake of locating a nearby metro by foot. No surprise here, but I swear no one, I mean no one, walks the streets of LA-especially while dragging a piece of luggage.
On Google Maps, the nearest station was some 25 minutes away. However, the seemingly short walk became incredibly miserable under the LA heat.
After two days hopping around downtown LA, I headed for a short visit to Santa Monica. The city houses a gorgeous 10-mile beach that sits right across a restaurant/ store-lined sidewalk. Artists, performers, beach walkers, dogs, bikers, rollerbladers fill the roads, pumping energy into the already lively neighborhood.
My friend took me up the Malibu Mountains to catch the sunset. We also struggled to settle down for some yoga along the road, which was deserted by but one vehicle every 20 minutes.
Santa Barbara is an upscale resort-like beachside city that sits in front of the Ynez Mountains. With its red-tiled rooftops and cream-colored walls, the whole city oozes a warmth reflective of its Spanish colonial heritage.
It wasn’t just relaxing, it was blissful.
I took a bus from LA to Santa Barbara that cost a hefty $80. It was a quick two-hour ride that placed me beside a contract firefighter that goes on week-long excursions into the wild.
As a professional chef, my host and her husband live in a cozy apartment near the cozy downtown core. Thomas runs a wine tasting service that takes customers to different wineries in and around the city. It was obvious that I hit jackpot staying in the land of wine with two people who specialized in wine and dine.
I spent a few days walking along the Santa Monica Harbor and slurping fresh oysters in dozens. My host also took me up Lizard’s Mouth to catch the sunset embracing the city and sea below.
The hidden gem is a half-hour drive from the Santa Barbara city center. Tucked away in the middle of some mountain hills, it overlooks all of the city. To the south, the city sits quietly against the Pacific Ocean. To the west, the sea stretches out endlessly.
We reached Lizard’s Mouth right around sunset. A trail led us to a huge platform that tilted towards a cliff meters away. Not a fan of heights, at one point, I found myself on all fours, praying to the almighty that I wouldn’t get blown right across the rocky formations into the wild. However, my host jumped around the rocks like no one’s business.
Once we reached the viewpoint, it was all worth it. The area was secluded, peaceful, and definitely one of my favorite sightings in California.
It was a sunny midsummer afternoon when I reluctantly left Santa Barbara, catching a $45 rideshare to SF.
I spent the first day wandering downtown. Immediately, I felt a close bond with the city. Unlike LA, people actually walked on the streets in San Francisco! But for those looking to visit, try to avoid the Tenderloin area. I mean, being cat called is one thing, but being followed by a group kite high in the middle of the day was just not a fun time.
SF’s Chinatown is the oldest in North America and the largest Chinese district outside Asia.
Stepping into Chinatown was as if I was like being transported back into 1960s Hong Kong. It’s a mixture of foreign-familiarity that many Chinese associate with these pagoda rooftops and dragon gates. Spoiler alert: much like lemon chicken or orange chicken on display in Asian buffets, this stereotyped nonsense doesn’t really exist in China. 😊
Unlike the traditionalist approach as taken by Chinatown, my lunch was spent somewhere a tad more modern. Situated on Howard St, Gold Club is a gentlemen’s club with booming music and dancing ladies. To draw crowds on weekdays, they serve a free all-you-can-eat buffet with a $5 entrance fee.
Visiting clubs, especially strip clubs, in the middle of the day is a completely new territory for me. In my sweaty tank top and slippers, I was surprised that they actually allowed me entry. It was a drastic change stepping into a strobe lights-filled, bass-blaring showroom on a sunny afternoon. Neon signs aligned the walls while a go-go dancer performed striptease on stage. I don’t think I will forget the experience of stuffing myself with pasta and fried chicken while being entertained anytime soon.
Moutainview & Menlo Park
Silicon Valley is yet another one of SF’s must visits. From Apple to Google, some of the biggest tech firms’ HQs sit just outside of the city. Luckily, I had a few friends that worked at Tech giants making bigger dollar bills.
Knowing how hyped these co-working campus spaces are, I decided to pay a visit.
The Caltrain from SF to Mountainview is a bit over $8. After arriving, my friend picked me up and brought me to the Google Campus. Since he had to get right back to work, I grabbed a Google bike and rode around the humongous campus. Note: the bikes are employees only since they are in such a horrible condition. However, so long you don’t vocalize your civilian status, all is well.
The campus is divided into several sections. After half an hour, I decided that there really wasn’t much to it other than the area immediate the newly renovated Googleplex. To be honest, the rest of the buildings on campus were rather dated. Nonetheless, it had a vibrant vibe. Lawn chairs filled the open space and several food trucks sat in the front of the complex. There were open grounds for volleyball and other pastimes. Rumor be true- the inside of buildings also housed loads of recreational entertainment.
The beauty of being the guest of a Google Employee is that we get a visitor’s badge that accessed certain buildings and binge eat at cafeterias. Cafeteria really isn’t the right word, as the amount of variety on display can put a buffet to shame.
Around noon, I took on another daunting task-Google to Facebook by foot.
I obviously made an incredibly stupid mistake thinking that a 20-minute drive on Google Maps would be a 40-minute walk tops.
Nope. The entire walk across highways and hills took me a good three hours. By the time I arrived at Facebook, my face was completed sunburnt from the California rays. Thank god for the view, and the occasional Starbucks.
The best way to get from one campus to another is a rental. If not, Uber becomes a great alternative to dragging yourself across plains and roads.
I could see why.
The Facebook campus was like a beautifully designed village. From bike shops to ice cream parlors, little stores lined the sidewalk. It may not be as big as Google, but FB HQ could be navigated without difficulty. Trying not to embarrass my friend too much with my tourist status, I whipped out my phone for a couple shaky videos.
Golden Gate Bridge
The last main sighting in SF was without a doubt, the Golden Gate Bridge.
Towering over the Golden Gate Strait, the bridge has become a symbol for San Francisco. At 1,280m, the structure is noted as one of the 7 Modern Wonders of the World by the American Society of Civil Engineers.
The stunning orange contrasts the ataractic blue, forming a spectacular sight that draws people from around the world.
Using public transport, you can reach the bridge by GGT bus (Routes 30, 70, and 101) from downtown. This is largely recommended by the city since parking is extremely limited near the bridge. However, for optimal views, we took a rental up the summit that lies behind the bridge.
Around 20 minutes up the hills, we stopped at Marin Headlands. The scenic point had a clear view of the Bay Area. The city formed a beautiful backdrop to the beautiful landscape. To the South-East, the bridge sat magnificently against the waters. To the South-West, the Pacific stretches on endlessly into the beaming sunlight.
Before the day ended, we decided to drive down to Twin Peaks to catch the sunset. The summits sit right around the city, providing a beautiful view of San Francisco.
It’s safe to say that California lived up to its fame. The Golden State was welcoming at worst, oozing a lazy-comfort of a land that has been graced by constant sunshine and warmth. Its people were happy-go-lucky, an easy going crowd that substituted stress & hustle with Wednesday farmer’s markets. Of course, I only lived one side of CA, but I live its good vibes happily.
Aside from the places mentioned, there are much more to the land of the free. You can integrate a number of the following within the cross state trip for a more enriching experience:
- San Diego
- Yosemite/Sequoia and Tahoe
- Point Lobos State Natural Reserve
- Salvation Mountain
- Central Coast
- Paso Robles
- Morro Bay
- Big Sur
I spent a total of 18 days running around California. Since I didn’t have to pay for the flight or accommodation, most of my $ went towards food and rides. You can also find City Passes to better explore these places!
I spent around $170 on transportation between the three cities/ varies counties. Since a number of people helped me out along the way, even those costs were greatly minimized.
In LA, I exhausted $30 on a number of random things. In Santa Barbara, most of the money went towards oysters. With a few drinks and outings here and there, the total amount I spent traversing CA was around $280, which is just over $15 a day.
If reading this makes you consider Couchsurfing, you can go ahead and read whether the option is right for you. If not, you can consider some other budget accommodation options.
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Los Angeles did not fail to amuse. Within a day of my arrival, I’ve witnessed the transaction between a movie scout and an aspiring actress in downtown Hollywood, the attempted suicide of a man atop a 40-story building, the numerous homeless folks along the tourist-filled blvds and the massive celebrity mansions in the secured streets of Beverly Hills.
Backpacking California was a treat. Although LA without a car is not suggested, it is possible. I was able to mission through my two-day stay with lots and lots of walking. Needless to say, I was the only one in the streets of LA dragging my luggage around like a complete idiot.
Three days before my arrival, my host canceled my stay at his flat downtown LA. Fortunately, his friend agreed to house me in his condo in Studio City.
Union Station, LA
With its red brick rooftop, beige walls and palm trees, the LA union station is the epitome of Sunny California as seen on 90210.
Since it was a bit ways from the beach side, downtown LA oozed dry heat, the sort that causes breathless heaves and burnt shoulders. I dragged my luggage out of Union, and became instantly thankful for the amount of Starbucks in this town. I’ve never been interested in Starbucks– we’ve got Tim Horton– the cheaper, less classy version in Canada. But Starbucks became a pit stop between all my destinations. With its free WIFI and AC, I was more than willing to spend a few hours in between my walks and just sit and chill. I’ve always said I’m the worst kind of traveler- I’d sleep all day if I could.
Drew’s friend, my host Jamie, was the most interesting person. He lived in the San Fernando Valley, home to (apparently) rich porn stars and an extensive network of adult film producers.
Before the 2008 crash, he was a mortgage broker in LA, riding the big buck and partying night and day. Basically some next level Wolf of Wall Street fiesta.
The crash left him devastated. Within two months, he packed his bags and moved to Alaska to work on a fishing boat. The man went from partying away his 6 figure income to slaving 16 hours a day abroad a sailboat. Talk about dramatic life changes!
After wandering around Hollywood Blvd, I was stopped by one of those ‘2 hour tour bus’ sales people. Since I didn’t have a car, this was undoubtedly the best way to venture around LA. Nonetheless, the given price of $50 was pretty expensive for my liking, so I negotiated for a student discount.
One of the perks of traveling alone is all the benefits. There is always that extra solo spot no one else would want to fill, always that extra conversation with strangers that wouldn’t happen if not by yourself.
I began chatting with Moses, the man at the counter. He ended up giving me the ticket for USD $14, which is really quite a steal for a 2-hour guided tour around the ins-and-outs of LA. He even went out of his way to buy me a water for the trip.
Despite the cheap tour, I wasn’t much of a fan of Beverly Hills, Sunset blvd, Hollywood Hills and all those other fancy celebrity residential areas. In spite of the beautiful mansions, these gated communities were too quiet. They lacked the excitement & glamor I associate with the whole entertainment industry. Incredibly ignorant, but I was kind of hoping to spot some craziness during the mid-day summer noon.
Perhaps I am just a tourist at heart. I can’t keep myself away from the obnoxious scene downtown Hollywood provided. I absolutely loved every second of the buzzing streets and spent the rest of my evening wandering among the buzzing crowds.
Following the celebrity house tour, we were dropped off at Hollywood and Highland, which was the downtown core of Hollywood blvd. The two must-sees in the area are the TCL Chinese Theater and Dolby Theater.
TCL Chinese Theater
The TCL Chinese Theater is a magnificent theater palace in Hollywood. Located at 6925 Hollywood Boulevard, it is just a block down the street from the Hollywood and Highland station. It has the exaggerated features of Chinese architecture and contains the largest IMAX theater in the world. In front of its doors, a select number of celebrities– the “Forecourt of the Stars” graced the cement floors with imprints of their hands and feet.
Hollywood and Highland Center
Dolby Theater is located just beside the TCL Chinese Theater. Unfortunately, I didn’t get a chance to visit the former. I was completely awestruck by the Hollywood and Highland Center. It encompasses the Dolby Theater and various restaurants, bars and stores. If you walk to the back of the complex, you can vaguely see the Hollywood sign atop the hills.
I spent the rest of the night wandering along the rooftop of the Highland Center, watching street performers and vintage cars from the terrace.
Every Friday or Saturday night, Hollywood Blvd would be crowded by night cruisers. It’s neat to see these beauties roaming the streets of LA. The line went on for miles with hundreds of onlookers gathered in the streets cheering them on.
Of course, I couldn’t end the night in Hollywood without chatting up love, drugs & rock n’ roll with a dapper stranger. So in came ?, who egged on the fun with his travels across the country.
LA definitely did not fail to amuse. While there wasn’t a celebrity sighting, people in LA were one of a kind. I met too many fun spirits running around town.
This is one of the days where I went over my $15 budget/day backpacking California.
- Public transit ($1.75/way).
- $2 burger at 7/11,
- $3 ice cap at a coffee shop and,
- $5 meal at McD,
- I spent around $27.5 (including my 2-hour bus tour).
You can also go for a Citypass to explore more attractions! If you have other questions, feel free to shoot me a message!
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Happy Travels xx
Quebec City tu dis? (Basically all the French I know after 4 months in Paris, a month in Quebec and numerous years of class)
After coming home to Canada from my 5 month trip around Europe, I was pretty sad. While I love Toronto to the moon and back, these North American cities just lack the charm of the small streets, rich cafes and altogether laid-back atmosphere of Europe.
So when the opportunity came, I applied for a scholarship that took me to live in a charming little town near Quebec City. I was completely smitten by the province. Although I only had one day (10 hours) in Quebec city, I managed to see a handful of tourist attractions by foot.
The Château is one of the most luxurious hotels in Old Quebec. Its castle-like structure overlooks St Lawrence River. Visiting the hotel and having lunch on the terrace is a great way to spend the morning. Often, musicians would showcase their talent by the Champlain Monument.
Wikipedia tells me that the Château is the most photographed hotel in the world. I wouldn’t be surprised, as its magnificent physique compelled me to take loads of unskilled and vaguely satisfying pictures. The hotel itself was built to attract wealthy travelers. With the average rate for a standard room ranging from $229 – $741,
Not today Satan
The walk from Château Frontenac to the lower town of Old Quebec was fast. It was a downhill hike that lasted approximately 10 minutes. The neighborhood was crowded with tourists and restaurants. Cafes and gift shops lined the streets. We had lunch at one of the little cafes and enjoyed the view.
Despite Quebec City being some 5000 km away from the tip of Europe and divided by the roaring Pacific, the city maintained an old-school charm and sophistication. Yet, it was nothing like Paris’ uptight mannerisms. Rather, it reminded me of cities along the French Riviera- simple, relaxing, happy.
Then again, I was on vacation.
After a few hours, we headed back uphill to catch a bus towards the Montmorency Falls.
Montmorency Falls is a waterfall some 12 km away from Quebec City. There are several ways to muse at the waters- either partaking on an hour long walk from its tip top to the bottom, or by cable car for CAD $10 one way. You can also get a bit crazy and hop on a zip line for $25! Of course, I opted for walking along the stairs. It was a magnificent view, having the waters below me while crossing the bridge and befriending a rainbow. To get a bit more wild, stand on the platform just beside the waters as seen above. You will be showered and set for days, within seconds.
Coming from Toronto, I have to say the waterfall is nowhere near the magnitude of Niagara Falls. But angry not Québécois, Montmorency is 30 m higher than Niagara*
Back in the City
Following the Montmorency Falls, we had some time to walk around the city. The streets were much quieter away from Old Quebec and tourist areas. While the bar was a bit far from the key tourist zones, Le Bureau de Poste is a great place to have a quick bite. The bar has the authenticity of a bar/restaurant but is less than the price of a Big Mac! In fact, their entire menu is priced at $5!!
We ended the night by walking along the city wall. The wall had a beautiful view of all of Quebec City. It was great to have a bite in peace while overlooking the streets that buzzed with traffic and people.
The #800 bus between the Montmorency Falls and the city was around CAD $3.00 for a single trip. In terms of food, we had a delicious burger at restaurant Le Chic Shack just across the street from the Château. Their burgers are extremely tasty despite being a little pricey. You can visit them here. The restaurant provides a nice view of Rue de Fort, but it can get pretty rowdy with all them tourists.
Otherwise, I spent CAD $10 or so throughout the day. Unfortunately, we didn’t end up eating at Le Bureau de Poste due to its massive line. But feel free to pay them a visit here.
Happy Travels xx