Monday, April 21, 2014

Akko, Israel

My sister-in-law Kim and I took a daytrip from Haifa to Akko (sometimes called Acre). It's a wonderful old city with winding paths and streets that seem to lead you nowhere, but maybe that's the point.

We took the train from Haifa which cost about 19NIS for a 25 minute ride. The Akko train station is about a 20 minute walk from the old town, but with the help of GPS, we made it.
We made two specific stops and other than that we just wandered around. First, we went looking for a hummus place called Said's. We had heard that it was the “best hummus in the Middle East.” We were sorely disappointed by these claims. The waiter was very rude and the hummus wasn't even in the top ten during our trip (and we ate hummus at least once a day for three weeks). Thankfully, after this disappointment, we found a little restaurant in the Turkish Souq called Kukushka. They had very inventive and interesting snack foods, delicious wine by the glass, and local beers. I ordered the veal sausages, fries, and a glass of wine. At about 70NIS, it wasn't cheap but it was well worth it. 

Table and chairs at Kukushka
Our other destination was the tunnels under the city. It cost about 15NIS and included less than we expected. The brochure for Akko shows the tunnels as if they are part of the citadel. They are not; we were fooled. But we were having such a great time wandering around this amazing city, we easily gave up looking for the entrance to the citadel and just enjoyed Akko itself.

Also, there is a cheese shop in the Turisk Souq (which is really just a long hallway with shops inside). Once again, it was great to see a shop trying something different. I tried a few of their cheeses and each was better than the next.

Haifa, Israel

Haifa was a bigger city than I expected. I also was surprised by the mountain in the middle of town that makes it hard to get anywhere without walking straight up hill or taking buses everywhere. We rented an apartment on that was near the train station. The location was really helpful for taking day trips from Haifa but the area seemed to shut down at night. The German Colony was not too far away (a 10 minute walk) but it seemed very touristy with its chain restaurants. We took the bus around town to save our legs and at 7NIS per ride, it was well worth it. We also took the cable car up to the top of the hill for 28NIS round trip, but I would not recommend doing this unless you want to go to the Stella Maris Monastery.

View of  the Bahai Gardens in Haifa

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Jerusalem, Israel

My sister-in-law Kim and I stay in Jerusalem for three nights. We rented an apartment through just off Jaffa Street (also spelled Yafo Street) about a 15 minute walk northwest of the Old City. We saw the sites of the old city which are mainly free. We also took a tour of the tunnels under the old city that cost about NIS22. It was a wonderful way to learn more about the history of the city.

We also visited the West Bank with Abraham Tours. The tour took all day visiting the River Jordan, Jericho, Ramallah, Bethlehem, and the Taybeh Brewery. And at US$105 per person, it wasn't a bad deal though we expected our guide to share more information than he did.
The West Bank Barrier covered in local art.
Many people who visit Jerusalem might be on a pilgrimage of one type or another. The pilgrimage experience can be sullied if you expect to have a personal, spiritual experience while visiting religious sites. There seem to be crowds everywhere and you should expect long wait times to see the most "holy" shrines like at the Sepulcher Tomb and the Temple Mount. I highly recommend visiting any sites inside the Old City in the early mornings for some peaceful time. Also, visit the West Bank. It's well worth the journey.
View of the Old City from the Mount of Olives.

While in Jerusalem, we took the tram up to the Mahane Yehuda Market. It's a great place to grab some fresh snacks or a cheap meal. There are a few little restaurants in the market. The one we loved is called Topolino. It's an Italian place where the pasta is made on site and all dishes are made to order. At about NIS25 per dish, it's a great deal. To get to the restaurants, enter the Market from Agripas Street. Most of the restaurants are in between the two main aisles.

Wifi is free and available on most major roads in Jerusalem. It is wonderful being able to check email and update social media from so many public places. But because the public wifi is available, the apartment we stayed in and some of the cafes we visited did not offer their own wifi. If the public wifi signal is not strong where you're staying or eating, you might be out of luck.

We rode the buses and trams around the city and tried to avoid taking taxis, as they get expensive quickly. Keep in mind, all taxis have meters, so don't ask how much a trip will cost. Taxi drivers will quote you a flat rate which will always be higher than what the meter would run you. 

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Crossing the border from Jordan into Israel

As I left Jordan, I had to say goodbye to my travel buddy, Katie, as she had to return to the States, but I gained another travel companion in my sister-in-law, Kim, who had joined us late on our Jordanian adventure. Together, we made our way to Israel. Crossing the border from Jordan to Israel was more time consuming but not nearly as frustrating or unnerving as we expected. We took a pre-arranged taxi from our apartment to the Jordanian side of the Allenby Bridge (which is not really a bridge). This cost JD20. We got dropped off at what looks like a bus depot. We went in the gates and around the corner into the office to fill out paperwork to exit the country. We handed over our passports and were asked to pay JD10 each for the exit tax. Once we paid, we waited for enough people to amass so that a full bus could drive us over to the Israeli side of the border. The bus ride cost a total of JD8 per person which included a fee for our luggage. On the Israeli side, we were given two stickers, one for our bag and one for the back of our passports. Our luggage (not our personal bags) were sent through security while we went through security in the adjoining building. After security, you will show your passport to a border control agent. This is where you can ask that your passport not be stamped. They will ask for a reason and you must provide them one, but the officer I spoke with didn't seem to take issue with my reason (a future visit to Kuwait). After this, we went through another checkpoint in which someone looks at our passport again. Note that this is the point that if they want to hand check your luggage, you will be asked to take a seat and wait until your name is called. They will already have your passport if they are going to hand check your luggage. We were not subjected to the luggage check, so we went on to grab our bags off the carousel. We're almost there, I swear. We walked outside to buy tickets for shuttles that will take you to either Jerusalem or to Jericho in the West Bank. There are two ticket stands, one for each. We were heading to Jerusalem so we paid a total of NIS42 per person which covered our luggage and our ticket. The ticket takers will accept any type of currency you have (technically you cannot bring Israeli shekels into Jordan therefore we had no shekels. We paid in US dollars) and they will give you appropriate change in Israeli shekels. We waited around for the shuttle to fill up and started off on the 45-minute trip to Jerusalem. In total, the border crossing journey took seven hours.

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Amman, Jordan

We spent four nights in Amman in an apartment rental via Airbnb. The manager of our apartment, Sama'n, also manages many other apartments in the city which are listed on Airbnb and on Gweet which is the Middle East's answer to Airbnb and Sama'n was a wonderful host and a very helpful man to know while in Amman. It's a sprawling city that seems to have no end.

While I enjoyed the city and all of its diverse options of things to do, see, and eat, it was a test in patience every time we left the apartment. When we arrived in Amman, the first thing Katie and I did was return the rental car as I had heard nerve-racking stories of driving in this capital city. The tales proved to be true as we sat in bumper-to-bumper traffic on our ride into the city. No car meant that we either had to take the public buses (which we were told were safe, but that as ladies, we would be expected to wear headscarves if we wanted to ride without incident) or we could rely on taxis. We took the taxi option which seemed like the lesser of two frustrations (waiting for buses or trying to communicate with taxis drivers). Every time we got into a taxi, we had issues communicating where we wanted to go and how to get there. Although most buildings in Amman had addresses, they're not used and the taxi drivers we dealt with didn't seem to know where major sights or streets were. 

Every set of directions starts with which traffic circle is nearest your destination (there are seven) and you have to direct the driver onward from the circle. Giving directions from the circle was difficult as our Arabic was limited and the taxi drivers had equally limited English. Even when we would show them a map of the city with our destination clearly marked, more times than not, they would tell us that this wasn't a map of Amman and that they couldn't get us to our destination. Once we were out and about, getting home became the next issue. Looking back, I wonder if the buses would have been less of a hassle even with the wardrobe change before we left the apartment, the waiting around, and the adventure of finding out how to pay the fare. There is a third option for getting around town and out of town—hiring a driver for the day or for a set amount of time. We chose this option when we visited Jerash, but compared to the taxi fare (about JD1-2 per ride across town), hiring a driver was very expensive (about JD30 for a four-hour time period). Keep in mind that most of these drivers speak more English than your average taxi driver and once you find one you like (and one who knows where you live), it's understandable why you would keep calling them time and again. We found our driver through another driver we met outside a tourist sight, but you can also try your luck at hailing a yellow cab on the street. 

Once we made it to our destination and shook off the frustration of the taxi ride, we really enjoyed ourselves. We visited the Citadel (JD2) and the Roman Amphitheater (JD1). We ate amazing food that, in more Western-style restaurants, cost about JD10-15 per person without alcohol. We made the obligatory and delicious visit to Hashem and our lunch only cost only JD2 per person. If you read anything about Amman, you will read about Hashem. It's a small falafel place that is super cheap, super fast, and super tasty. They bring each table a plate of falafel, a plate of tomatoes, onions, and mint, pita bread, and tea immediately after being seated. Hummus, ful, and falafel are available by order. There's no printed menu, but there may be other foods available as well. Ask any local where it is and they'll tell you. Hell, this is probably the only place taxi drivers will know when you mention it.

Citadel in Amman.
Everywhere we went in Amman proved to be fun and interesting, but none of our outings would have been possible without a smartphone helping us every step of the way. I hope with time Amman will become more tourist friendly.

Wadi Rum National Park, Jordan

Wadi Rum is amazingly beautiful and definitely worth a visit. We researched a handful of tour operators and decided to go with ClassicWadi Rum Tours. They offer many tour options. We chose the four hour Jeep tour with an overnight stay in their tent camp. At JD45 a person, it was an awfully good deal. In addition to the guided tour, the price included a large boxed lunch, delicious hot dinner, breakfast, bottled water, and Bedouin tea. The park entrance fee of JD5 was not included.
The rock formations of Wadi Rum.

I was nervous that their “camp” would be the dumping ground for all of the tourists in Wadi Rum that day (think hundreds of tourists milling around in one place). Fortunately, this was not the case. It seemed as though each tour company had their own secluded, small camp set up in different areas around the desert that is Wadi Rum. The camp we stayed in has about 20 tents with 2-4 beds in each. There is also a tent for congregating/eating and the camp has running water, toilets, and showers. We felt lucky that when we were there in mid-March, there were only about 12 people staying in our camp. At capacity, there could be around 80 people in this specific camp.

We really enjoyed the day with our guide, Salman. He was very friendly and answered all of our random questions about Jordan, Wadi Rum, and, oddly enough, goats. 

Petra, Jordan

Petra is the number one sight to see in Jordan and once you've visited, you'll understand why. At JD55 for a two-day pass, it was the most expensive entrance fee we encountered in Jordan. Included in the fee is a map and a guided tour that takes off every 30 minutes from the visitors' center. The men with horses and horse carriages just past the visitors' center will tell you that a ride is included in your ticket price. This is true, however, they expect a hefty tip at the end of the ride. Horse, donkey, and camel rides once inside the site are not included in the ticket price.

Camels at Petra.
The entire length of Petra is 4.3 miles (7 km) and all the major sights can be covered in one day if you are in good health and are fairly active in your daily life. The main thoroughfare is rocky but generally flat. There is a steep climb up to the High Place of Sacrifice and natural rock stairs to get to a few other sites. Getting up to the Monastery is about 45 minutes worth of well-worn stairs without railings. The sights are absolutely worth the workout. Note that there is a cafe near the Monastery, but there are no bathrooms other than the au naturale kind.

The main passage through Petra is in a valley with tombs carved into the hills above. There are stairways up to these tombs and pathways that run on higher ground parallel to the main drag. I highly recommend walking these paths instead of staying in the valley walkway. There are fewer tourists, the vendors are less aggressive, and the views are amazing.

Ruins at Petra.
If you're on a budget, go when the site opens at 6 a.m. and you will definitely be able to see Petra in one day (assuming that you do not want to hike the long trails that lead away from the ancient city center). We chose to buy the two-day pass and arrived the first day (a Sunday) around noon. It was somewhat crowded, but not overwhelming once we got past the Treasury. The second day (a Monday), we arrived at 6 a.m. and there was no one there. We were surprised and amazed that even around 8 a.m. it was still mostly empty. The tour groups seem to get there around 10 a.m. or 11 a.m.

I highly recommend going at 6 a.m. It's well worth getting up early to be there alone. Every blog I read about visiting Petra mentioned arriving early but it seemed as though no one took this advice the morning we went. Or, if you absolutely can't arrive early, stay late. When we were still there around 5 p.m., all of the tour groups were gone and only the individual stragglers were left to wander back through the ruins and the Siq. Also, bring snacks and water. Though the prices of these items are not outrageous in the park, you can save yourself some time and money by bringing your own.

We stayed at the Rocky Mountain Hotel for two nights at JD32 a night. The hotel was somewhat dated (as many of the hotels in Wadi Musa are), but the staff was very helpful and the top floor dining room and terrace were nice amenities. This hotel is located up the hill away from the entrance to the park (about a 20 minute walk) and therefore we were able to eat cheaper because we weren't eating in the tourist area just outside of the entrance to Petra.

Saturday, April 5, 2014

Renting a car in Jordan

We rented a car from Thrifty at the Amman airport for just under $300USD for a week. Gas for all of our driving around cost approximately $125USD. Gas stations in Jordan are cash-only and full-service. Overall, our driving experience was positive as the roads were in good condition and usually well signed. Our primary point of concern was other drivers. It seems that very few drivers use turn signals, pulling into oncoming traffic at 5 miles an hour is not considered a hazard, and there is a lot of seemingly random horn honking. 

There are frequent checkpoints along the main highways. A police officer will hold up a stop sign and wave you to the side of the road. When we were chosen to pull over, I would hand over my driver's license (my U.S. license, as I did not get an international driver's license) and the car registration card that Thrifty provided. Most police officers spoke some English and would usually ask us where we were from and maybe where we were headed and then we'd be on our way. 

My general advice for others would be that if you are going to drive in Jordan, don't speed, drive defensively, and know that Google maps is not complete for Jordan. While GPS worked very well, the road map itself was not up to date and many places in Jordan do not use street addresses. If you're unsure of where you're going, it's best to get directions before setting off.
We would not have seen this amazing view of Jordan and the Dead Sea
if we had not rented a car and wandered off on our own.

Madaba, Jordan

On a recent trip to Jordan, my traveling mate, Katie, and I started our adventure off in Madaba. About a 30-minute drive from the Queen Alia International Airport, it's a smaller, more manageable town than Amman. We stayed at the Mosaic City Hotel for JD47 a night for a double room. The hotel was updated and clean with a good breakfast and helpful staff. Free wifi was offered, but barely worked (you will see this recurring theme through my other blog entries about Jordan and Israel).

The main sights in Madaba, including the mosaic map at St. George's Church (JD1), the Madaba Archeological Parks (JD2), and the Shrine of the Beheading of St. John the Baptist (JD1), can be seen within one day. A special note about St. John's: I feel as though it was worth more than the JD1 entrance fee. The church offers an interesting photo gallery in the visitors' center, a bell tower climb, and a self-guided tour of the 3,000-year-old ruins under the church. Unlike at other sights we visited, the gentleman staffing St. John's was enthusiastic about their offerings and was willing to chat and answer questions. Most sights in Madaba close around 5 p.m., so it's best to start early in the day.

We didn't inquire about entering the mosques in town since none were advertised as sights to see.

We ate at Haret Jdoudna ( twice in the three days we spent in Madaba. The restaurant is in an old home and also has a handicraft market. I was pleasantly surprised at its authentic and delicious local dishes after seeing that it was rated #1 on TripAdvisor (I'm usually disappointed with the restaurants that make it to the top of TripAdvisor lists). The crowd was a good mix of tourists and locals. A very filling lunch or dinner cost about JD10 per person. 

Haret Jdoudna restaurant
We also stopped in Cafe Ayola. and, while the food was good and cheap (about JD5 per meal), the food options and condiments were very Westernized (think hot dogs, barbecue sauce, and ranch dressing all on the same plate).

Friday, February 21, 2014

Palenque, Chiapas, Mexico

We visited the ruins and were pleasantly surprised at how well preserved and expansive they were. We were also surprised that we were allowed to climb up most of the ruins. 
The cost to get in is nominal but know that outside of the ruins, everything gets pretty expensive compared to the other areas of Chiapas we visited. In the restaurants near the hotel area of town, entrees start at around $100 MXN. We stayed at the Chablis Hotel which was fine but at $60 USD a night, it was standard for the area but still more than I would have liked to spend. We ate in the gringo area a few times but also went into town across the bridge and ate at some of the small restaurants there. They were much less expensive, about $12 MXN per taco.

If I were to retake this trip and were on an even tighter budget, I would have taken one of the tours from San Cristobal to Palenque to see the ruins and visit Miso-Ha and Aqua Azul in one day. We took the bus from San Cristobal to Palenque for $112 MXN, then took a colectivo to and from the ruins for a total of $80 MXN, the two entrance fees for the ruins (one for the park, one for the ruins) for $87 MXN, a tour that took us to Misol-Ha and Aqual Azul for $150 MXN, and finally the bus ticket back to San Cristobal for $176 MXN. So all of this comes out to $605 MXN per person. There were tours from San Cristobal that included Palenque, Miso-Ha, and Aqual Azul for $450-600 MXN. I think by staying in Palenque for three nights (so that we would have two full days to visit the ruins and the waterfalls), we actually spent more money than if we would have just crammed it all into one day. But at least we could take our time at the ruins and have time to relax. I guess that's the trade off.
Misol-Ha waterfall
Agua Azul waterfall

San Cristobal de Las Casas, Chiapas, Mexico

San Cristobal is a lovely colonial town that also feels like an acutal town. While there are more tourists (English speakers are more prevalent here), and there is some of the bothersome focus on selling things to tourists, there is something about the town that also feels normal; locals just going about their day.
Ominous clouds over San Cristobal
We spent a lot of time wandering around the regular, everyday market (food, housewares, etc.) not to be confused with the craft market (ceramics, textiles, souvenirs, etc.). It is a never ending maze of stalls.

We also ate lunch in the market most days we were there; taco and caldos (soups and meat dishes that sometimes include rice and beans, but always include corn tortillas) were the main choices. Once again (see blog entry Chiapa de Corzo), speaking Spanish is a must. But the food was good, plentiful, and cheap. The average meal we had in the market was around $25 MXN. I am not sure what the custom is on tipping at these food stalls but we tipped a small amount, maybe $5 MXN each time. Knowing how much we were saving, we felt that we could afford to be generous.
Carne asada tacos con cebolla
We chose not to visit the nearby Mayan villages after reading on other blogs that the locals in those villages were not always interested in people coming to stare at them. So instead, we went out to a park called Archotete and it was well worth it. 

We took a taxi most of the way to the park which cost about $60 MXN. We had read online that the taxi would be closer to $30 MXN but since there were two of us, maybe the cost was per person. We walked the rest of the way, about a mile down a gravel road through a small town.
Me crossing a shaky bridge in Archotete park.
The entrance fee for the park was $10 MXN per person. We were two of four people visiting the park that day so we had the trails to ourselves. We paid an extra $10 MXN to go into a cave and we made friends with the local stray dog. After a few hours of hiking, we decided to take a taxi back from the park instead of walking down to the main road which cost $80 MXN.

The grotto in Archotete park
We named this dog Omar.

There are a lot of beautiful churches to visit in town and some great bars and restaurants to relax in. One of the cheapest bars we encountered was on Real Guadalupe called La Vina de Bacco. It's a wine and tapas bar with their cheapest glass of wine starting at $18 MXN. They also serve beer and mixed drinks. There also seems to be a lot of live music venues around town.

Chiapa de Corzo, Chiapas, Mexico

We went to Chiapa de Corzo to wander around the square and to take a boat tour of Sumidero Canyon. We also took some time to go into the market and eat some delicious food. Choose any stall that is busy but know that a) most stalls only serve one kind of food (tacos, tamales, caldos, etc.) and that b) Spanish is a must. But you'll save yourself a lot of money by eating in the market than going to the restaurants near the river. A plate of three tacos cost about $20 MXN whereas the menu del dia at the restaurants on the river cost about $65 MXN.

Sumidero Canyon
The tour of the canyon is well worth the $160 MXN and takes about two hours but know that information is only given in Spanish. It seems as though there is only one tour company that runs these tours. We found a booth on the square but you can also go directly to the river to purchase tickets.

While in town, we saw a ruin of some sort up on a hill near the church (which is on another hill) overlooking Chiapa de Corzo. It's well worth the short walk uphill for the ruin and the views of the area.
Hilltop ruins

To get to Chiapa de Corzo from Tuxtla, you must take an autobus to an area called Soriano (I think it's one of the bus depots but I'm not sure). At Soriano, on the roadside, there will be colectivo drivers hollering for passengers going to different destinations that are close-by. The cost was $12 MXN each way.

Tuxtla Gutierrez, Chiapas, Mexico

We flew in and out of the Tuxtla airport for its cost and convenience to the other places we wanted to visit while in the area. In our research, my husband and I had read that Tuxtla was not a tourist-friendly town but we really enjoyed our time there.

Getting from the airport to town was more expensive than I would have liked but it made the most sense. Supposedly there is a way to take a colectivo from the airport into town but the airport is about 30 minutes away from the city center, and I'm glad we paid for the taxi instead of wasting time trying to figure out the other hypothetical option. It cost $280 MXN which when we visiting in February of 2014 the exchange rate was $13 MXN to $1 USD.

We spent a lot of time just walking around Tuxtla and eating food. No one seemed to be interested in us which was a nice change from the more tourist-heavy areas of Mexico and a great introduction to Chiapas.
Food was pretty cheap and there are taquerias everywhere. A plate of three tacos was about $35 MXN. The only issue I ran into was that most restaurants don't serve hard liquor (I am not a beer drinker) and even a few bars only served beer.

We also took the orange autobuses (which are different than the colectivos) up and down Calle Belisario for 6 MXN per ride. This took us to Parque Central which seems to host an array of events; music, market, etc. But we stayed further west on Calle Belisario near a university in a Holiday Inn. We used points for our stay so I can't comment on pricing for hotels in the area.

There is a nice athletic park at the intersection of Calle Belisario and Calle Libramiento Pontiente Norte which has a track around the outside and soccer fields and playgrounds on the inside. It's a great place to wander around, relax in the shade, or take in a game.

General Notes on Chiapas

We chose to go to Chiapas because we had heard it was beautiful, safe and that the food was delicious. All of these things were true and we really enjoyed out time there. But I don't think this would have been the case if my husband was not a strong Spanish speaker. We rarely found locals who spoke English (even in our hotels which included Holiday Inns) and we are under the impression that most of the tourists visiting this part of Mexico are Mexican. With this knowledge, I would recommend this area as a great destination as long as you know there won't be a lot of help if Spanish is not spoken. Also, credit cards are not accepted in most restaurants and hotels nor are they accepted by the bus company we used, OCC. But the people are friendly though not very chatty, the towns we visited were interesting and did not seem exhausted with tourism (even the town of Palenque just seemed like a regular town with a few random English speakers wandering around). I can't wait to go back and explore others parts of Chiapas.