Back on the Beach.

So after a short visit back to the UK for Christmas, where we had a great catch up and plenty of laughs with family, we jumped on a plane on New Years Eve, destination Mexico. Our plan was to spend a month or so exploring the country, maybe a side trip into a couple of other Central American countries, before ending up in Costa Rica for about a month. At that point we would see how things are turning out and possibly head back to Mexico before returning to the UK in early April. We are pretty sure though that, like most of our plans in the last couple of years, something will come along and alter it. But for now it looks good, so lets go!

First stop, Cancun. Only because that was the easiest airport to access Mexico by direct flight, not because we wanted to party all night. Those days are well and truly behind us now. We used Cancun to stay for a couple of nights in order to get over the flight and pick up some essentials like the all important Mexican SIM card and we spent most of our one full day lying by the hotel pool enjoying being back in the hot weather.

“Happy New Year”

We also bought ourselves bus tickets to Playa del Carmen, a resort town further down the Yucatan Coast, where we planned to stay for a week and relax on the beach or by the pool.

Someone is happy!

We absolutely never feel hard done by, in fact just the opposite, and we truly appreciate how lucky we are to be living the life we do. But all this running around can sometimes get a bit tiring. Different time zones, long days of travelling, lots and lots of planning and organizing, and then more organising and planning. We use a tracking App called Polarsteps which is a great tool allowing you to load photographs and comments onto every stop you make on your travels. So far it shows in three years we have travelled over 120,000 miles and made over 300 stops. Did I mention there was a lot of organising and planning?

We settled into Playa del Carmen very quickly. We rented a small apartment in a block with a rooftop pool three blocks away from the main tourist hub.

“Three Amigos “

We are not normally too bothered about busy tourist areas but Playa had a nice feel to it. It had plenty of bars, restaurants, coffee shops, touristy outlets selling everything Mexican, many of which were linked to Mexico’s fascination with skeletons, skulls and The Day of the Dead. There was also apparently a ‘buzzing’ nightlife but our only involvement with this was when Steve went for an early morning run and had to dodge the last few ‘clubbers’ on their way home! We have enjoyed a beer or two in the past. In fact, Steve once got so drunk at a Christmas party that he pulled a huge 200 year old bookcase over, which landed on Sarah, deposited the contents of his stomach which included a bottle of Jagermeister and other similar drinks onto his and someone else’s dinner jacket, before being taken home practically unconscious in someone else’s clothes. But those days are over … well at least Sarah hopes they are!

The main square in Playa

Playa did a great job of allowing us to relax. It felt more like a holiday than travelling. In fact we decided to avoid as much planning as we could by joining a tour. This is something we haven’t done for three years and although it was only going to be for a couple of weeks, rather than a couple of months like the last one, it would be something different and allow us to sit back and have someone organise us rather than organise each other. Plus, last time we met some really great and interesting people, so hopefully it would be the same again.

“Let’s stay here for three months”

The trip was going to be based around visiting Mayan ruins in The Yucatan peninsula of Mexico, Guatemala and Belize. There were 13 of us travelling together, most of the time in a Mercedes Sprinter minibus, with a local Mexican leading the way. We would be staying in basic hotels and eating out, not camping and cooking for ourselves like the last time. Sounds quite luxurious we thought.

We all met up at a hotel in Playa and went out for a meal together. The make up of the group was varied to say the least. One born in Moldova but living in the USA, one born in Latvia but living in Germany, one born in Greece living in Germany, one born in Switzerland and has been living in Canada. Three more from Switzerland (The Swiss do seem to travel a lot). Three others from The US and two from The UK who don’t really live anywhere (that’s us by the way!). We also had a Mexican tour leader, Salvador.

Our first stop on the Mayan trail was Chichen Itza. This is probably the one most people have heard about. It is only a couple of hours drive from Cancun so is easily done on a day trip for anyone having a holiday there.

The main pyramid at Chichen Itza

Chichen Itza was our introduction to Mayan culture and construction. Salvador used to work as a guide there and so we benefited from his expertise. It was built over 1500 years ago and astronomy was very influential in its construction with the buildings and their design being strategically linked to the sun and the equinox. At specific times of the year the sun would shine through various parts of the pyramids and cast shadows which produced images including a snake running the height of the main building. All very impressive considering when they were constructed.

A ruined structure. (The building, not Sarah!)

The pyramids were also used as tombs for the Mayan rulers in much the same way as the Egyptian pyramids were used for the pharaohs. Some of them contained moveable stones to reveal hidden chambers and passages.

After Chichen Itza we made our way to the city of Merida, the largest city in Yucatan. We had a brief stop in the city of Izmal where the buildings are all painted yellow. It made for a nice photo opportunity, plus we got to climb one of the old pyramids for a great view of the area.

The yellow city.

We both really liked Merida. It had a relaxed feel to it, with a central main square which was busy in the evening with families, music and a few locals selling colourful items of clothing.

Dining out in Merida.

From Merida we made the trip to Uxmal, another Mayan City. This was amazing. Although we had enjoyed Chichen Itza, Uxmal was even better (in our opinion that is). We had a great guide, who was informative and funny, and there were much less people there.

Another impressive pyramid in Uxmal

In fact, at some points our group was the only one around. The site seemed to contain more buildings with more detailed decoration and in some ways more authentic. Plus, there were loads of good sized iguanas floating around which on occasion were in danger of stealing the show.

He doesn’t look to impressed.

After Uxmal we visited a couple of Cenotes. These are effectively water filled sink holes caused by a huge meteorite which hit the area 66 million years ago, the same one which some think wiped out the dinosaurs.

We really enjoyed Uxmal.

There are hundreds of cenotes in the Yucatan peninsula and fall into three main types. Ones which are completely underground, i.e in a cave, ones which are completely open and ones which have a small open air access leading to a large cave. We visited an open air one and one where we had to walk down into a cave. Both were fantastic but the cave was really special. Swimming around in crystal clear water among stalactites with the sun illuminating the area from a hole above was a first for us.

The cenotes were pretty cool places.

We now had a long nine hour drive South to our next stop to the jungle city of Palenque. By now the group was starting to bond and everyone was well travelled so it was great to swap stories with other people and get some ideas for the future. Although our life is pretty much based around travel, we never get tired of talking to people about it and listening to others who are very like minded.

Palenque was another stop for us to visit another Mayan site. This was different again to the previous two, primarily because of its location deep in the jungle. The weather was damp and wet (still nice and warm though) and the site had a real atmospheric feel to it. It wasn’t hard to imagine a scene from an Indiana Jones movie going on.

This place was pretty atmospheric….and wet!

Whilst in Palenque a few of us took the opportunity to visit Roberto Barrios waterfalls. Steve had seen this during his research for Mexico and had really fancied going. What he didn’t realise was when we got there we would have the opportunity to jump, swim and walk down a series of four waterfalls. Steve and four others jumped, literally, at the opportunity while the rest if the group followed a path alongside the river.

Steve had a great time. The guide spoke no English so we had to use body language to follow the instructions and it was a bit if a leap of faith into the unknown when he indicated for us to jump! We swam and walked through the water between the drops. We crawled into caves behind the falls and on one occasion we had to swim under the water into a small cave. It was quite exhilarating and when Steve and two Swiss girls, Aurora and Amanda, emerged into the cave they just burst out in uncontrollable laughter at what they were doing!

We made our way to the last jump and found some yellow tape blocking our way? The guide lifted it up, we went under, made the last jump into quite a reasonably strong current and swam to shore to join the others from the group. It was at this point that Sarah pointed out the Police on the other bank. “Our guide just told us someone died here two days ago and they are still investigating!”, she said. “Good job we had a guide who was able to give us thorough, clear instructions”, he replied!

Unfortunately the only photos we have are on Amanda’s ‘Go Pro’ so I will post them when she has sorted them out and passed them on.

It had been a fantastic day and we were really starting to enjoy this trip….. a lot. We were seeing some pretty impressive sights, meeting some interesting people and having a great laugh along the way.

Our travelling companions!

We are now due to leave Mexico and head into Guatemala, a new country for us, and hopefully a great time lies ahead.

“I’m so glad you had a good guide for the waterfall jumping Steve, I was a bit worried”.


España por favor!

After our extended stay in good old Australia, we made our long awaited return back to The UK just as Covid restrictions were lifted.

We enjoyed a good Summer catching up with friends and family in Hampshire, Kent, Yorkshire and Wales. We did some house sitting in The New Forest looking after Steve’s best friend, Rupert the Working Cocker Spaniel, and did some walking in The Yorkshire Dales and Peak District.

Having missed several celebrations during our time down under we were thankful that we were back for Steve’s mother’s 80th birthday. We spent a fantastic few days away at a couple of locations in Hampshire. We stayed in some great hotels with plenty of character, we ate in some super restaurants, we saw some beautiful sights, but most of all we had a really fabulous time together with plenty of laughs.

Happy Birthday To You!

Also, while in the UK, Steve put all that training to good use and managed to get in a couple of Ironman races. He didn’t do too bad considering he is  getting on a bit. In fact, he came third in one and missed out on winning his category by just a few seconds in the other (he put his defeat down to stopping too long for a pee!).

You look like you need a pee mate!

So, although it wasn’t a spectacular Summer as far as the weather was concerned, we felt we made the most of our time in Blighty.

We also managed to get our Covid vaccinations which allowed us to resume our travelling. However, although the World is slowly opening up, our choice of destinations was somewhat limited. Taking into account the time of year and the weather we decided to head to Spain.

Spain had never really been featured in our original plan but then neither had a Worldwide pandemic! We have visited Spain many times in the past, predominantly to the Canary Islands and Majorca, mainly for some Winter sun and to cycle away from the UK wind and rain. Previous visits to mainland Spain had been a similar scenario but with stays of just a week we had never had time to venture too far from the major airports and tourist destinations. So our experience of Spain was limited and to be honest neither of us had fallen in love with the country. With approximately eight weeks to explore, maybe this time would be different.

We packed our car (with all its electrical issues) and jumped on a ferry to Bilbao in Northern Spain. We had a plan to head West through the Galicia region to Santiago de Compostela and then continue around the country anti- clockwise as far as Barcelona.

We are getting used to our plans going array but even for us this time was a record. We drove off the ferry, checked the weather and saw a week of storm clouds covering our planned route. So we turned East and headed for the foothills of the Pyrenees instead.

Our first stop was a campsite near the town of Balaguer. A beautiful location next to a lake and close to some seriously good walking. Probably the pick of the bunch was in a place called Congest de Mont Rebei. This walk had to be seen to be believed. Sheer drops only inches from the path which was carved through the rock, rope bridges across rivers, and an incredible decent on a rickety wooden staircase straight down the cliff face. Incredible.

Not one for vertigo sufferers
“Are you sure it is safe?”

Our campsite was also pretty good but we did wonder why there weren’t that many tents around. In fact, at one point, we were the only tent on the site. We quickly discovered that camping in Spain, especially the further South you travel, is predominantly campervan and motorhome based. The hard, sparsely vegetated ground is not conducive to comfortable and easy camping under canvas.

For our next stop we travelled South East towards the coast. We passed through a lot of rural Spain, with small towns and villages where the main occupation seemed to centre around farming. The places we passed through appeared relatively poor and we commented how it was sometimes not that easy to determine if buildings were being constructed, demolished or renovated!

We arrived on the coast at a place called Calpe, not too far from Benidorm but far enough for it to be out of sight and mind. We were trying to avoid the well known places along the various ‘Costa’s’ and see a different side of the country. Steve knew Calpe was a good area for cycling, but what he didn’t know was how good. When he found out that half of the professional cyclists in the World spend time here over the Winter, Sarah knew she wasn’t going to see much of him!

Up and up and up!

The hills and villages around Calpe were beautiful and Steve couldn’t let Sarah miss out, so she rented a top of the range electric road bike. This allowed her to keep up and on many of the steeper hills even leave Steve behind. We spent days out and about exploring, stopping for coffee in the villages, struggling up the mountains and flying down them.

“Can we go down now?”

The mountains were nearly always above 3000 feet and occasionally over 5000 feet. We did two or three a day and that is a lot of pedalling. Initially Sarah was understandably very hesitant about descending down miles of steep hairpin bend roads but by the end she really looked the part, full gas, knee out banking the bike around the bends, and she even overtook a couple of cars!

“I love my new bike”

The next six weeks followed a similar pattern as we drove South and then West through Andalucía. What a place. We loved it. Beautiful town after beautiful town. They are known as the ‘Pueblo Blanco’, White Towns, and they stand gleaming out in isolated pockets, sometimes in valleys, sometimes perched atop a hill, sometimes clinging precariously to the side of a cliff and on one occasion built into the cliff.

I quite like it here
Frigiliana. Often voted the prettiest village in Spain

We twisted our way through Mojacar, Orgiva, Arcos de la Frontera,  Grazalema, Zahara, Frigiliana, Bocairent and numerous others. Sometimes we camped, sometimes renting an apartment and occasionally staying in a hotel. We would always cycle, often walk, and sometimes just relax in the beautiful surroundings and amazing weather.

Sunset over our campsite in Bocairent

We also visited Granada, where the Alhambra Palace is. This palace is just too incredible for words. We walked around Ronda with its famous bridge, a favourite of many, and Jerez de la Frontera, the home of Sherry and also a centre for Andalusian horses.

The famous bridge in Ronda.
The view of Granada from The Alhambra Palace.

We went to a display at the riding school to see the impressive horsemanship and Sarah was in her element.

Sarah really wanted to join in!

Sarah found us some beautiful places to stay and with it being towards the end of the season, and tourism volumes still low, she was always able to find a great deal. One stipulation for accommodation was that we needed relatively secure parking. Unfortunately our aging car has a developed a few electrical problems. The long and short of it is, the battery drains overnight, and the dashboard lights up like a Christmas tree, which is obviously a problem! We know what the issue is, but in this world of supply chain issues we have been unable to obtain the part. So for now, in order to get around the problem, we have to disconnect the battery if the car is left for more than about 6 hours. This means we can’t operate the central locking and a separate issue means we can’t lock it manually.

As I am writing this it sounds ridiculous that we would embark on a 6000 mile trip, but we have just got so used to it, the whole process has become second nature. It is a little disconcerting sometimes when you are driving along with the warning lights on, there have been seven in total, but only ever a maximum of five at one time. Oh, plus the fuel gauge does not work and you can only open the boot from the inside!

Anyway back to the secure parking. Campsites and apartments are generally fine but hotels in cities where space is a premium can be a challenge, especially when they were built with much smaller cars in mind. A twelve point turn in an underground car park to get out was the record. That in itself was eclipsed when we turned up to a place with an underground car park with no ramp. You had to take the car in a lift!! We were crying with laughter as Steve maneuvered our bigger than average car into the small space as Sarah squeezed into a corner as she guided him into the lift. The front bumper had to touch the front lift door in order for the rear one to close!!

Of course it will fit!

We clung to the last rays and heat of the Autumn sun in a place called Torrox. But as the second week in November started we decided to head North and start our long drive home.

The last eight weeks had completely changed our view of Spain. Admittedly it had mainly been in Andalucía but it is a place we will undoubtedly return to…. many times.

Our time in Spain however was not over. In fact we still had another three weeks before we planned to return home. Before that we were due to visit our friends, Mark and Lisa, who we met in Australia. They live in the North of The Netherlands and that by anyone’s standards is a long drive from Torrox which sits on The Mediterranean in Southern Spain.

Here is a short precis of our stops and route:

Cordoba. Fabulous cathedral, small old town, a little touristy but worth a stop on any itinerary. We found it quite traditional when it came to restaurant eating times. If you want to eat dinner between 5pm and 8pm we suggest you take some sandwiches. As is the case in a much of Spain outside the familiar tourist areas, the evening doesn’t even start to get going until after 8pm.

The Cathedral started life as a Mosque!

Toledo. A top drawer place. Amazing. We loved it. It is visually striking both close up and from a distance.

Toledo was pretty special

It has a beautiful old town and a friendly atmosphere, good bars and coffee shops, and a lovely walk along the river below the city.

A walk along the river.

San Sebastian/Donostia. Food heaven! The town sits on the Bay of Biscay and has two main beaches. One is sheltered, huge, sandy and perfect for relaxing (unfortunately we were there in mid November so could only imagine it). The other beach was a surfer’s paradise and even at this time of year well over a hundred wetsuit clad surfers lined up like an army of seals jostling for position on the perfect wave.

Food glorious food.
Above the bay in San Sebastian.

Cognac (we are now in France). We thought we would stop here just for the sake of it. This small town in South West France, as its name suggests, is the home of the famous spirit. The town has several well known distilleries which even we had heard of. It is a pleasant place for a stroll along the river and if you are a Cognac fan there are tours of all the famous brands are on offer.

Montargis. Where? Sometimes you just have to stay somewhere to spend the night and then move on!

Epernay. Where? Well you may or may not have heard of this tiny French town in the North East. But you will certainly have heard of its main export and more than likely, on a special occasion, sampled its main export. Epernay is the epicentre for the production of Champagne. All the big Champagne houses and dozens of smaller ones are located in or around the town, including Moet et Chandon, probably the most famous one of all.

Down in the Champagne caves

We visited Mercier and did a fantastic tour which took us underground into the 18 kilometres of caves and storage rooms. Where we were transported around on a little train as the history and workings of the company were explained. The tour finished off with the obligatory Champagne tasting.

It would be foolish not to!

From Epernay we drove across Belgium and on a grey November day it was nothing to write home about. Our impression was one of a dark, closed in, cramped, cold place. However, as we crossed the border into the Netherlands we encountered a world that appeared clean and modern. The grey graffiti covered concrete surroundings and old industrial units and works, were replaced by open green spaces, light and airy new commercial premises, and a fresh clean feeling and we were struck by the stark contrast.

We couldn’t pass through The Netherlands without spending a couple of days in Amsterdam. We walked the entire city, what felt like at least three times, did all the tourist things, and had a really good time.

Typical Amsterdam.

However, that pesky old Covid thing was starting to loom again. Case numbers were starting to rise and the Dutch Government had installed an 8pm closing time on non essential shops and restaurants, bars and entertainment. This restricted Steve’s time in a certain part of the city!!

Finally, we made it to Friesland (where the cows come from), home to Mark and Lisa. In fact, they have two homes as they were renting a place on a farm and had also just got the keys to their new house which they are about to renovate. Now Sarah loves a good renovation project, having done a bit of it ourselves, and we were more than happy to help out for a few days. So armed with a sledgehammer, chisels, wallpaper strippers and such like we set about their new abode.

Sometimes being short helps!
Not bad for a mornings work.

We had a great time, laughing and joking, talking about our time together in Australia and although it was over a year since we had seen each other, it really did only feel like yesterday.

It wasn’t all hard work, we did manage some time out to see the local area and while visiting a market Mark persuaded Sarah to try a local delicacy of raw whole salted herring. It was a sight to behold, how she wasn’t sick we will never know. The sight and sound caused a few passers by to stop and watch!

Something seems a little fishy.

Steve and Mark also managed a cycle together. It wasn’t quite the same though as cycling in the 30 degree heat of the Far North Queensland rainforest!

This is going to be a cold one.

We left Mark and Lisa to continue with their substantial project and promised to return in the Spring to see the progress. “I hope it is finished by then”, joked Steve, as he examined the cuts on his hands! We can easily see Friesland being a regular stop on our travels. They really are a lovely couple.

So it was back to Dunkirk and the ferry to Dover. But we had one last stop to make. We had heard a lot about Bruges in Belgium and had decided to see what the talk was about. We were a bit dubious having not been overly impressed with the look of Belgium as we had driven through previously. But Bruges was a gem of a place. The weather was pretty cold with a few showers around but it is one of those places you can enjoy at any time of year.

It was a bit wet but Bruge was still lovely.

We strolled around the cobbled streets and alleys, soaked up the sights (literally) and gorged ourselves on beer, chocolate, waffles and other delicious treats. “Hey, come on Sarah. We have earned this on those mountains in Spain. One more waffle please….. with extra chocolate…. white AND milk!