TRAVEL INSPIRATION: CENOTE SUYTUN, MEXICO!

Monday travel inspiration: Cenote Suytun, MEXICO!

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In a setting very similar to the cave from H2O: Just Add Water (millennial talking here), Cenote Suytun is an underground cave in the Yucatan peninsula of the country. Although this one might look spectacular, wait until you see the rest of the caves – it’s difficult to pick one!

Situated about 6km outside of the city of Valladolid, the cave is reachable in about a 5 minute drive or about an hour walk. Surrounded by stalactites and gristalinas, its shallow waters allow visitors to see the living beings populating them, whilst a hole at the top gifts the place with a beautiful stream of light shining from above. What’s more, the schoolchildren of Valladolid often grace visitors with a show of Mayan music and dancing, making the experience extremely unique.

A fun fact is that, due to scarcity of available water in the Yucatan peninsula, the super smart Mayans used to set up camp around the caves to have access to fresh water all year round. Indeed, the word Cenote comes from the Mayan language and it rightfully means ‘well’. And, as you might know from my previous post, the Maya are also very into their caves, which are often seen as doors to the underworld and are often sites of prayers and rituals.

Do I really need to say more? Go and book your trip NOW. ✈️


 

Have you been to Mexico before?

#mondaytravelinspiration

Photo credit: https://theculturetrip.com (check out their website for more info on all other caves!)

GUY FAWKES NIGHT: A BRITISH CELEBRATION OF CIVIL UNREST

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On November 5th, the UK celebrates Guy Fawkes Day, also known as ‘Bonfire Night’. This is a yearly event remembering the failed attempt to burn down the British House of Lords back in 1605. The attack was part of a bigger mission known as the ‘Gunpowder Plot’, which was eventually averted by Guy Fawkes’ arrest. The conspiracy was initiated as both a move against the then-current government, and to support Catholicism, accusing King James I of not granting Catholics sufficient religious tolerance.

Traditionally, local councils organise firework shows and parades to celebrate this night, although in some places it can be a little bit more extreme, involving the burning of effigies as an anti-Catholic protest.

Whilst studying in Scotland, this was my first proper British festivity and therefore I do hold it close to heart. I mean, who doesn’t appreciate a good old firework display where the whole town reunites and rejoices as one?

Fun fact n.1: Guy Fawkes’ face was afterwards adopted by the widely known hacktivist group Anonymous, as well as by anti-government groups worldwide, to promote their move without showing a face.

Fun fact n.1: this character also inspired the film V for Vendetta.

Enjoy the festivity!

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Photo credit: http://www.britwordaday.com

TRAVEL INSPIRATION: KAMCHATKA, RUSSIA!

Monday travel inspiration: Kamchatka, RUSSIA!

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This week’s travel inspiration is a little more extravagant and wider: the Kamchatka peninsula in Russia. Situated in the Pacific Ring of Fire, it has been called the land of ice and fire where cold winters are counteracted by a multitude of active volcanoes sprinkled across the area.

Rightfully denominated as a ‘wild Eden’, Kamchatka is quite remote and is normally reached by either boat or plane. This is because of a lack of proper roadways leading to the area, which isn’t a destination for rookie travellers.

Characterised by challenging weather and steep temperatures, this land is definitely meant for more experienced travellers and, once reached, will really take your breath away with its natural, wild beauty.

Would you be up for the challenge?

#mondaytravelinspiration

Photo credit to: http://www.forbesindia.com

BUSKING SUNDAYS: Jack Broadbent

🎶 This week’s busking comes all the way from the Dutch canals in Amsterdam, Netherlands, where Jack Broadbent is enticing tourists and locals with his energetic tune.

Originally from England, he’s actually a pretty famous guy, but I only found out today while I was writing this post. I kinda dig the way artists come from all different places.. never forget your roots! 🎶



#buskingsundays

SLEEPING ROUGH ON THE STREETS OF ZÜRICH: the crazy night that happened

I recently visited Münich, Germany. I was in Scotland before then. I was in Italy afterwards.

Sounds like a great trip, you’ll be naïvely thinking in your head.

My story, though, lies in the middle.

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Blurry Switzerland

It’s Monday. I am in Münich. I have just spent a couple of days visiting friends and attending a BOMB concert by Bukahara (check them out), happily nearing the end of my first stay in the Bavarian city. After popping by Scotland for a few days, I have decided to fly out the island with an extra suitcase that I had left to friends when I left back in July, in order to finally take it back to Italy. Because of this, I figure out that the best means of travel from Münich onwards would be by bus, as that would avoid the hassle of carrying luggage around and, although long, would ultimately be a more comfortable and easier way to make it home.

Being a hardcore Flixbus fan and a general bus lover (here my reason why), I quickly decide to use the international carrier to complete my journey. After scrolling through the options, I eventually find a beautiful ride with a 2 hour stop in Zürich, just enough to have dinner at Hiltl (my favourite veggie restaurant ever) and have a rest before setting off the second leg of the journey. Perfect plan, right?

Except – of course – the plan does not, in fact, work out as planned. And it all starts from the very beginning – when I miss my first bus from Münich. Isn’t it funny how the train always gets there immediately when you’re not in a rush, yet takes 15 minutes to get to your station when you are? Ha ha. So funny. So fast forward about half an hour into my run for the bus, I realise I will surely miss it and manage to cancel the booking just 15 minutes before departure, which is the latest you can do that according to Flixbus regulation. Hurray for me.

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Rail tracks view while waiting for the next bus

After initial despair, I scan through the other available options and realise that, actually, another bus leaving an hour later would still get me to Zürich before the second bus departed, so everything could still work out smoothly. Having learnt from mistakes though, I decide to wait until booking the second one just in case, and get on the first bus on my way to the Swiss metropolis. Trip working out smoothly, I get in touch with a friend living in the area, hoping we could perhaps hang out a bit before I have to leave Switzerland again (as most people know it isn’t my favourite place to be). This is when everything starts to go downhill, as I get to Zürich and intelligently decide to miss my connecting bus thinking I could easily catch another one through the night. Waiting for a reply for my friend, I understandably start getting quite cold in the Swiss temperatures and, when no answer comes, I eventually decide to book the bus departing at midnight from the central bus station, getting me home an hour later than planned.

Except it doesn’t. As I quickly get to the bus station after quickly booking the bus ten minutes before departure time, I realise that.. No one is there. No bus drivers, no active buses, barely any people waiting and just street workers cleaning up the Saturday night mess. Still confident in my Flixbus, I check the app’s updates on the journey and reassure myself when no delay is advertised. However, minutes quickly turn into half an hour and, with just a pair of thin socks on and no sign of Flixbus staff, I decide to phone them up and see what’s going on. After 5 minutes on the waiting line, I finally get connected to an operator, whom – bless her soul – has no clue what’s happening and tells me she will email me once her manager gets back to her about it.

Yeah sure. Bump your clock down to 1:30am, I am still waiting and my body temperature has dropped significantly. Desperate and with no credit left to make calls, I send a message to my family who manages to get on the line with another operator after ten minutes of wait. This is when we find out that the bus has, in fact, been cancelled.

And no one thought of telling me. 

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Happy times when my only problem was longingly looking at the rail tracks in Münich

In Italian, we have a saying which goes, ‘oltre al danno la beffa’. Conceptually, it means that aside from causing damage, you also get laughed at. This saying is particularly fitting when not only do I get informed that the next available bus is at 3:40am, but I am also told that such bus is already fully booked and I will have to take the next available one. At 6:effing:30 in the morning.

The news is followed by a rollercoaster of a night which sees me basically sleeping on the streets of Zürich in a desperate wait for my bus, finding shelter by the entrance of a  Starbucks while I try to keep myself warm with everything I’ve got. Things get even funnier when a police car stops by, inquiring what I am doing and, once informed I am waiting for the damn bus and literally freezing myself off, simply sighing at the thought and wishing me good luck. ‘It’s very cold right?’, says the police offer. It is indeed miss – thanks for stating the obvious.

After that, I somehow manage to stay alive until the next morning, drifting off to sleep a couple of times and frantically waking up to check if I’ve lost a limb to the cold or if I’m still intact. Once morning comes, luck is for once on my side and I make friends with a nice Italian gentleman living in Switzerland who decides to offer me a coffee before departing on our long-coveted journey. We then end up spending the rest of the trip chatting about life and experiences, and becoming short-term friends for that little while. Kinda makes the whole ordeal worth it, doesn’t it?

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Sunset views on the way to Zürich

BIG DISCLAIMER: This blog post is definitely not against Flixbus – I have travelled with them countless times and never had an issue! This misunderstanding was a bit frustrating but hey ho, nobody’s perfect. Mind you, I actually had so much fun throughout this whole adventure. Although not always the best, I totally live for travel (mis)adventures and find them to make any trip just that much better and more fun to remember. And, they do always work out well to entertain my friends, when they constantly ask for the juicy bits of a trip I’ve just been to, so it all works towards a good cause… right?

And you? Have you had any similar experiences while travelling, or total fails that kinda make you smile when you think back to them? Make sure to let me know in the comments below!

As always, I hope you’re having a lovely day and I will see you at the next blog post!

Elena

 

GUATEMALA TRAVEL GUIDE: Lago de Atitlán & Santiago

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Set in the Guatemaltecan Highlands of the Sierra Madre, Lake Atitlán is the deepest lake in Central America, originating from numerous volcanic eruptions throughout historical times. Originating from Nahuat, an ancient Aztec language, Atitlán literally means ‘between the waters’ and is the name of both the lake and the active volcano overlooking it from above, whose last eruption dates back to 1853. This view also led famous writer Adolf Huxley to compare the lake to the Italian lake Como, calling it the ‘most beautiful lake in the world’ because of its combination of Como’s beauty and the unique volcanic element.

Accompanying Volcano Atitlán are Volcan San Pedro e Tolimán, its two older brothers currently inactive, as well as a constellation of 6 different towns sprinkled along the lake’s coast which can only be reached by mountain roads or, at times, solely by boat. This makes travelling to this area a very special experience, which led Lago de Atitlán to be officially turned into a National Park in 1955, after which several campaigns were launched in order to attract tourism to this underrated spot.

In present day, some of the most visited towns along the lake are Panajachel, San Pedro and Santiago, with their local markets and peaceful vibe making visitors feel part of a warm and welcoming community of souls. Having only visited a couple of villages, Santiago definitely struck a chord with me. The largest village of the group, it is also the home of Maximon – Maya’s folk saint whom people devote their prayers to each day. A walk through the village will take you to one of many Maximon’s lairs, as the saint moves from house to house with every passing year. Donations to Maximon often involve cigarettes, alcohol or money, whilst his cult strongly revolves around a raw consumption of life and its substances. Santiago’s main square, on the other hand, presents a majestic church which acts as both a place of prayer and of encounter, whilst the rest of the town is adorned with street markets serving every need. The people’s serenity and simplicity really made me fall in love with this town, which is probably one of my favourite spots in the country to visit.

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To find out more on other things to see in Guatemala, read here.

8 MUST-SEE THINGS DURING YOUR TRIP TO GUATEMALA

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In the heart of Central America, lies a small corner of heaven named Guatemala. With a population of almost 17 million people and a history of civil unrest, the country can only be described as a human jungle where tradition is met with modern development, creating a powerful land of possibility which dates back to the Mayan empire.

Described as one of the ‘lungs of the Americas’ together with Belize and Mexico, the name originally derives from a Mayan language and rightfully means ‘Land of Many Trees’. Indeed, the country is well worth being the setting of any spiritual film attempting to draw on people’s attachment with nature, with long patches of rainforests making you feel small and meaningful at the same time.

In order to visit the country fully, I have compiled a list of must-see spots for you all to check out. I would like to point out that this list is in no way limited and it’s simply meant to suggest some sightseeing spots across the country, also taking into consideration the fact that I had a relatively short timeframe to travel around. If you have more suggestions, feel free to add them in the comments below and I’ll make sure to include them in the blog post!

Without further ado, let’s get started:

1 – LAGO DE ATITLÁN

 

The deepest lake in Central America, Lago de Atitlán is located in the Guatemaltecan Highlands of the Sierra Madre and, more specifically, within the department of Sololá – a tiny gem in the country’s mountain peaks. After being instituted as a National Park in 1955, the lake has since been attracting heaps of tourists each year from across the globe. Constellated by 12 towns reachable by boat or through mountain roads, it serves as a haven in the heart of the Guatemaltecan nature and won’t fail to take your breath away once you see it. Read more about it here.

2 – CHICHICASTENANGO

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Chichicastenango is short for Santo Tomás Chichicastenango and, with such a zealous denomination, the town’s popularity doesn’t come as a surprise. Originally named Chaviar, Chichicastenango was re-baptised by the Spanish conquistadores, adopting the Nahuatl wording for ‘City of Nettles’ which is used at the present time.

Standing at an altitude of 1965m, the town is located in El Quiché department of Guatemala and stands as a highly vibrant cultural centre for the indigenous population of the K’iche Maya. This is interesting because whilst K’iche means ‘many trees’, the Nahuatl translation – Cuauhtēmallān – is actually the origin of the name Guatemala itself.

The major attraction in Chichicastenango is the massive market, which takes place across the whole town centre every Thursday and Sunday. Here, anything from food, to utensils, to quality fabrics can be found, bringing life to the small town with its cheerful displays. Additionally, the town also sports one of the most colourful cemeteries of the country, sitting on top of a hill overlooking Chichicastenango and beautifully described by Atlas Obscura as a ‘color-coded clue to the puzzle of the dead’. Although a seemingly grim travel destination, this is a great sport to observe the Guatemaltecan culture, where one can often find families performing traditional rituals to honour the dead.

3 – ANTIGUA GUATEMALA

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Commonly referred to simply as ‘La Antigua’, Antigua Guatemala used to be the Kingdom of Guatemala’s capital under the Spanish Empire, and is currently a recognised UNESCO World Heritage site. Famous for its Spanish-baroque architecture, the city is often preferred by locals and tourists alike for its authentic feel when compared to the current capital – Guatemala City.

Founded in 1543, Antigua’s cobblestone streets are a popular destination amongst both locals and international travellers. The most famous architectural wonder – El Arco de Santa Catalina – is indeed accompanied by several religious spots such as the Cathedral, which overlooks the city’s main square, the Iglesia de San Francisco and most importantly Iglesias de la Merced, where a Jesus entirely made of SWEETCORN can be observed. Walking up the church’s steps will also lead you to an adjacent terrace where Antigua can be observed from above.

The city’s colourful markets and street food displays will once make sure you get everything you need out of your trip, throwing you into a sea of locals to truly experience the Guatemaltecan lifestyle.

4 – TIKAL

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Once the home of the pre-Columbian Maya civilisation, Guatemala unsurprisingly boasts one of the biggest cities dating back to the its ancient times. Formerly known as Yax Mutal, Tikal is located in the Peten department of the country and surrounded by the country’s natural rainforest, presenting numerous paths which lead from one stone construction to the other.

Like Antigua, Tikal has also been denominated as a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1979, attracting millions of tourists each year. What the average visiter might not know though, is that the site was completely obscured to the outside world until mid-nineteenth century, when gum-sapper Ambrosio Tut’s report on the city was first published on a Guatemalan newspaper and subsequently brought to the international spotlight by the Berlin Academy of Sciences’ Magazine in 1853.

Now go onto your quest to find the stone face I shot in the photo above and good luck.

5 – VOLCAN PACAYA

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Guatemala has an extremely high volcanic activity. With the most recent eruption dating as recently as June 2018, when the country’s population was hit by several eruptions caused by the Volcan de Fuego – one of the most active volcanos in the whole world – a visit to Pacaya is definitely a must when travelling through Guatemala.

Rising at an altitude of 2552m, Volcan de Pacaya is currently active and has been displaying frequent eruptions since 1961, after being dormant for roughly 70 years. Located in the Esquintla department of Guatemala – just 30km south-west of its capital – the volcano has experienced a gradual increase in tourism in recent years, making it a popular destination to explore the country’s volcanic scenery. The reason for this dates back to 2006, when a slight increase in the volcano’s activity led to the creation of several lava rivers slowly travelling down Pacaya’s walls. Indeed, the spectacle offers a quiet and relatively safe view of the volcano, making it an ideal spot to admire Guatemala’s nature whilst warming up next to a lava hole (which you can also cook marshmallows in – FYI).

6 – BIOTOPO DEL QUETZAL

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Quetzal does not just refer to the Guatemaltecan currency – in fact, the name derives from the homonymous bird Quetzal, a beautiful two legged creature sporting majestic green, red and blue hues. Inhabiting the Central American rainforests, the resplendent Quetzal is a rare sight that only a few selected ones have the luck to see during their lifetime.

To increase your chances, a stop at the Biotopo del Quetzal is highly advised. Located in the province of Cobán, this natural reserve is indeed a great spot to look out for the creature whilst admiring the region’s dense rainforest, so that even in case of failure, the incredible views from El Mirador’s terrace will make the disappointment feel a bit sweeter.

7 – SEMUC CHAMPEY

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Who needs a subscription to the aquatic park when you have breathtaking nature at your disposal? Nestled in the Alta Verapaz, Semuc Champey is a natural forming limestone bridge which runs for 300m over the the Carabón River, creating a series of turquoise-colored pools that people can swim and relax in. Although getting there is a bit tricky (a pretty shaky jeep ride awaits you for several km’s), the trouble is well worth the wait as locals and tourists alike are able to take a dip into the water whilst being surrounded by lush rainforest.

A hike up the hill will reward you with an incredible view of the scenery from El Mirador terrace, whilst a walk further into nature will lead you to the Lanquin caves, an underground network where stalagmites, bats and hidden waterfalls await those who dare to walk in.

8 – CANDELARIA CAVES

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Once part of the Mayan Great Western Trade Route, the Candelaria Caves were instituted as a National Park in 1999 and are currently managed by an associtation of Q’ueqchi, after a long battle with the government over this control. The caves span over a length of 22km – making them one of the largest cave sites in Central America – and follow the underground path of the Rio Candelaria for over 12km, which connects seven different caves.

Believed by the K’iche to be an entrace to the underworld known as Xibalba, these caves were often the site of Mayan rituals and ceremonies, which still take place to this day. Pottery artefacts and rupestral painting are evidence of this, as the walk through the caves takes any visitor onto a mystic experience of still and vibrant life.

 


 

These are all my suggestions so far. I will spend the next week writing in-depth blog posts on most of these (and posting more photos), so that you can get more information without this one becoming way too long for anyone’s interest. Also, I’d like to point out that these are simply bullet points and that Guatemala has a lot more to offer! Lake Atitlan in itself is surrounded by beautiful travel spots, as is Antigua.

Nevertheless, I hope you’ve enjoyed this blog post and that it gave you a rough idea on what’s good to see in the breathtaking Guatemala.

I hope you’re all having a great week!

Elena

HOW I ACCIDENTALLY GOT A CHINESE PEN PAL.. IN PERSON

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Chinese boy I met on the Ferry boat at the Summer Palace in Beijing, CN

It is the year 2012. I have just successfully completed a trip to Beijing, China, with my class, at last crowning the dream which had originally pushed me to decide to study Mandarin Chinese in High School in the first place. Souvenirs tucked into my suitcase and a fun holiday behind me, I realise that something is missing: my dad’s postcard. You see, my dad has never been one to wait for souvenirs from abroad, always settling instead for a single postcard from all the places I visited. I guess that’s also what prompted my current obsession with postcards, and it is a nice tradition I maintain to this day, to avoid having to carry kg’s of gifts and yet still send out a thought to my loved ones.

However in this case, the situation is different. After days spent looking for postcards, which for some reason no one seemed to sell anywhere I went in Beijing, I finally manage to get one and happily get it ready to be sent off once I reach the post office. Except I don’t. Because we don’t run into one for the whole time there and, once at the airport, we all realise there isn’t enough time to do it there. We quickly get ushered to our gate and then rushed onto the plane by our professors, leaving me no time to think of a plan B and consequently pushing me into despair.

It’s pure panic. I am in China – on the other side of the world and another bloody continent – and, it seems, I’m going to have to get a stamp in bloody Rome to send the damn postcard. Naturally, I refuse to accept the situation. I quickly scan the flight to check for Chinese people travelling to Rome and, hit by a wave of confidence (and desperation), I tentatively tap on a flying neighbour’s shoulder who is sitting in front of me. “Yes?” he says as he turns around, “can I help you?”. You can indeed, my friend, but I am not yet sure this guy is MY guy and therefore my interrogatory carries on. “Hi, I’m sorry but I was wondering if you’re from China”, I say. Perplexed, the guy assures me that he is and wills me to proceed with my enquiries. “If you’re from China,” I say following the rules of logic, “will you be going back to China at some point?”. Man once again replies positively and is now probably wondering what the hell is my problem. His friend also looks fairly confused by my questions.

This is my cue and I decide to go for it, explaining to the guy the whole ‘my dad wants a postcard’ situation, the lack of stamps at the airport, my despair and worry over not being able to follow through with the task. At last, I ask the final question: “Will you be so kind as to send my postcard whenever you get back to China? I don’t care when, just as long as you do”. Much to my surprise, the guy not only agrees to the plan but doesn’t even accept my money to pay for the postcard. I then decide to drop him my email address in case he might need more information when sending it and, taken aback by his apparent benevolence, I close my eyes hoping he will actually do it.

Fast forward to a few weeks, it’s a miracle in the Biasi household. The postcard finally arrives, meaning not only my dad got his gift, but the complete stranger actually followed through with his promise. I am over the moon and, not much later, receive an email from the man asking me if I received the postcard all right. This prompts a series of emails where we exchange facts and stories about each other’s respective country and, upon discovering my own passion for postcards, the guy decides to send me one from all the places he visited in China. To this day, they are still hanging in my room.

Although we haven’t spoken for years, funnily enough I got in touch with him again recently over Linkedin after he got a new job and I congratulated him on it. Crazy how life works out, isn’t it?

My message for today’s story is actually.. two messages. Firstly – if you want something, go out there and do your best to get it. Don’t accept ‘no’ as an answer or think negative circumstances are insurmountable! If needed, use a little imagination and move around the obstacles instead. Secondly, draw up some courage and talk to people – strangers, people that you’d like to connect with, people whom you find interesting. It might end up badly, it might not, but it doesn’t hurt to try! And who knows where a simple ‘hi’ could take you? Take this story as an example. 🙂 In short… don’t give up or shy away from situations and dare a little bit more. Surprises will come your way!

I hope you’re all having a lovely week,

Until next time

Elena