You can Yucatan

In which our writer exits a snake pit in search of authentic Mexico….

Apparently, some posh hotels in Cancun will tell you that Cancun means “end of the rainbow.”  In Mayan, Cancun actually means “snake pit”, and I can see why.   My airport shuttle scuttles past major brand resorts and a dozen hotels that look exactly like them (although one did look tremendously, and somewhat appropriately, phallic). In my airport transfer van are four couples on honeymoon.  Using non-existent Spanish, I ask the driver if he knows the weather forecast. This involves me making splashing sounds, blowing wind, and pretending to sunbathe, badly. My fellow passengers do their best to ignore me. “Senor,” says Jose, for that is the name on his badge, ” it will rain for 11 days.” The shuttle lovers react like someone has punched them in the armpit. “Good thing I’m leaving in the morning then,” I say proudly, irritating the lovers no end.    No disrespect to the desires of honeymooners, but this month, I came to experience some real Mexico.

I want to see the Yucatan, and the real Yucatan is out of Cancun.   You’ll get a small taste of it when you get on an air-conditioned bus, blown away by the  badly dubbed American action movie blaring at top volume.   Then you’ll stop at the global bucket list landmark of Chichen Itsa: that giant Mayan pyramid sitting in a jungle clearing as an incredibly accurate cosmic calendar.   We’re in Mayan country, still the largest indigenous group in Mexico, although a shadow of the mighty empire that ruled these parts before the Spanish invasion.     Besides their astronomy, city-states, and massive stone temples, Mayans also invented a precursor to soccer, basketball, and tennis called Pok-Atok –  the sound of a ball against their long, walled ball courts.   The captain of the winning team would be sacrificed, a rather strange incentive to compete. They also sacrificed children born on August 6-10, once they reached the age of 4 to 12.  Happy birthday, now… we rip your heart out!  

Pok-Atok: a precursor to basketball, with less bounce and more human sacrifice

Human sacrifice was viewed by Mayans as an honour, but history points to a large, lowly population working for an elite class of priests who forbade them to look at the stars (they had to use mirror pools of water) or even to use the wheel. Sacrifice kept the masses in place, with lucky heads rolling down the steps of the pyramids, and evidence suggests that bodies dumped into the nearby water sinkholes, or cenotes, ultimately poisoned the community’s drinking supply.  People were dying, so to appease the gods more people were sacrificed, their bodies dumped into the wells, and soon enough everyone is either dying or being sacrificed, and it’s hasta luego to the powerful empire that once ruled Chichen Itsa. 

Any visit to the region has to include the other cenotes, found outside the disarmingly charming colonial city of Merida.   These cave pools are sparklingly clean, and outrageously fun to swim in.  To find them, I take a one-hour bus ride, passing small Mayan villages where heat bakes the earth, and toothy kids play traditional games in the streets.   Nobody appears taller than 5ft, and the tallest buildings are bright, white churches.     From the bus stop, it’s an adventurous horse ride along a narrow gauge rail to the first sinkhole, warm and clear, where I see catfish swimming below.  A wooden platform lets visitors dive into the blue water, as deep and bright as if someone has poured in that colour therapy bath stuff you buy at hippy stores.    I visit three different cenotes, scaling the walls of each cave as stalactites slowly drip their way from the ceiling.  Giant roots from a tree above descend through the limestone, and one cave has a small opening for a 12m plummet into the dark water below. Perfect for thrill-seeking and rock jumping, just mind your cajones!

Merida at night

Montezuma’s Revenge be damned! Tacos, enchiladas, milanesas, hundreds of varieties of chili, and you can’t go wrong with food in the Yucatan. I finally learn the difference between a burrito and an enchilada. Enchiladas are made with corn wraps and burritos with flour wraps. Now you know too.

Compared to Chichen Itsa, the jungle ruins of Palenque feel more authentic, a tad more Indiana Jones, a little less Disney. The view of the surrounding jungle from atop Palenque sets it apart.  Here I learn more about Mayan rituals and practices, including head flattening, and the Mongolian Spot – a birthmark linking Mayans to Mongolian nomads.  Another loud bus ride drops me off in St Cristobal de las Casas, once a volatile Zapatista stronghold, now a leafy, colourful postcard.  This is the launch pad to visit the Mayan villages of Chamula and Zinacantan for a fascinating cultural encounter.   Where else will you see live chickens sacrificed in a church, or Coca-Cola worshipped along with the Saints?    The bizarre evolution and integration of Christianity into Mayan paganism has created a spectacle, to be witnessed respectfully (or else shamans will confiscate your cameras).

The ruins of Palenque

Late night salsa dancing in the bars, taco-gorging in cheap taco-joints – you can drown me in swamps of guacamole and flash-floods of lime-soaked beer, but not in the Rio Grande.   One final adventure has me speeding its waters on a boat beneath the 1km high cliffs of the dramatic Sumidero Canyon.  Mayans once jumped off the edges here rather than being slaves to the Spanish, and it’s a long, long way down.   I see a large crocodile swimming just 50m upriver from children playing in the river. The cocodrillo is clearly not into Mexican food the way I am.  A guide is machine-gunning facts in Spanish, so I sit back, and just appreciate that I’m out of the hotel bubble, exposed to a culture unique to the world, and surrounded by a beauty that is authentically, and distinctly, Mexico.

10 Tips for Healthy Travel in India

If the thought of squatting over a hole for days on end is holding you back on one of the most incredible journeys of your life, I urge you to read this. For it is possible to travel extensively in India and not get a case of Delhi (or Rishikesh, or Anjuna, or anywhere) Belly. What’s more, you’ll be able to eat some of the best food on the planet. I know this because I spent a month in the country, and while travellers around me seemed to drop like flies, I remained healthy. This is not because I have a superhero gut of steel. It’s because I took some basic precautions, and stuck to them. Our digestive system just isn’t ready for the onslaught of foreign microbes you’ll find on the sub-continent. Over time, it will adjust, but for travellers, here’s Robin’s 10-step plan to prevent a messy disaster:

1. Don’t drink tap water: Obviously, enough said. Don’t freak out too much about that scene in Slumdog Millionaire where tourists buy bottled water straight out of the tap. Most packaged water is fine, just check the cap to make sure it’s sealed. Keep a bottle of drinking water handy for brushing your teeth. And importantly, watch out for ice in drinks.

2. Don’t eat meat: India is a country of vegetarians, where cooking vegetables has been elevated to an art. You’re not going to miss beef, pork or chicken, even though it is widely available. Relish the veggie curries, and stay clear of potentially contaminated meats.

3. Don’t eat uncooked cheese:  Cheese is heaven for nasty microbes. A friend of mine was doing great until she sprinkled some Parmesan on a pasta dish and spent the next 72 hours expelling fluids from every orifice. Paneer is fine – it’s an Indian cheese cooked in many amazing curries. And pizza should be OK, so long as the cheese has boiled at some point.

4. Don’t eat eggs:  Leave the sunny-side-up for treats back home. An undercooked egg will probably tie your intestine into a sailor knot.

5. Don’t drink milk:  For some reason, most travellers deal well with lassi, the delicious yoghurt-based drink. It has been known to be mixed with tap water and ice, so use your judgement. Since dairy farming refrigeration is sometimes not up the standards you’re used to, milk is a risky business. Do your gut a favour, take your coffee black.

6. Don’t eat fish unless you see it caught and cooked: On the coast, fish doesn’t come fresher, although you may want to make sure that’s the case first. Uncooked or fish left standing in the heat too long is going to mount an all out attack on your immune system.

7. Don’t eat uncooked vegetables, peel your fruit: Fortunately, most vegetables are cooked in curries so delicious your taste buds will dance a Bollywood musical. Peeling fruit is a wise choice. If you’re washing stuff, make sure you do it with packaged water.

8. Eat in restaurants that cater to tourists/wealthier Indians: A place with a good reputation and steady clientele usually knows the value of good hygiene, and the importance of keeping itself recommended in the guidebooks. When it comes to dining out, it pays to follow the advice of those who have come before you. The only time I ate meat was at a famous international hotel and it was fine. I know you’re dying to eat street food like the locals, just be aware that locals can handle things in their tummies you probably can’t.

9. Wash/sanitize your hands regularly, and especially before eating: Just like your momma taught you.

10. Trust Your Gut: You could follow all of this religiously and still get sick. Or you can meet travellers who don’t follow any of this and do just fine. Everyone’s system is different. However, being paranoid about what you’re eating will definitely rob you of having an awesome experience. India is no place for Nervous Nellies. The best way to deal with the sensory overload of color, smell, noise and people is to relax, be patient, keep a sense of humour, and listen to what your gut is telling you.

Wined and Dined in the Douro

Portugal’s Douro Valley offers discerning bucket listers more than just fine wines. Explore ancient vineyards on misty terraces, stroll through historic towns, dine like royalty and stay in hotels ranging from modern fortresses to 17th century villas. I’ve long said Portugal is the best deal going in Western Europe: all the cobblestone without the price of Italy, France or Spain. Portuguese wines offer great value, and so is the country itself. Below are some images from my visit to tick this one off The Great Global Bucket List:

View from the town
of Amarante.

And yes, the place does look EXACTLY like a postcard.

The manicured garden at the stunning and historic Hotel Casa da Insua. The swans came to say hello.

Autumn Grapes: The leaves change colour with the season, but the grapes stay ripe and juicy.

Walking amongst the organic grapes at Solar de Merufe

98 Points! 16 glasses in one wine tasting sitting at Paço dos Cunhas de Santar

Cobblestone glory:
A cold fall night through the narrow streets on the way to Paço dos Cunhas de Santa.

Billionaire Playboy Ken Hegan approaches the light under a canopy of vines.

Terraces in the Doura Valley. Because of their design and age, all the grapes in the region are hand picked.

Two hours off the red-eye from Toronto to Lisbon, lunch is served in the dining room at Quinta de Azevedo in the Vinho Verde region.

Soft sheep cheese, fresh fruit, great wine, and get a load of the weird faces in the vase here at Quinta da Fata

Quinta do Noval makes some of the finest port money can buy. And like many other producers in the region, all their grapes are crushed by foot in rooms much like this.

I spent Halloween night with the old world elegance of Hotel Casa da Insua, complete with its spooky old chapel.

I can not get the Six Senses Douro Valley out of my head. A stylish modern wing is attached to a more traditional hotel overlooking the Douro. I remember concrete and low lit decor, fantastic artwork, stylish rooms, a magical fountain indoor pool and subtle fragrance seeping from the tunnel like hallways. It’s been called one of the best hotels in the world, and certainly left that impression on me.

Click here for more information on visiting Portugal’s Douro Valley.

Don’t be Cuy for Ecuador’s Tasty Pig

This chapter was cut for size from The Great Global Bucket List print edition. My editor and I decided it might not be, well, to everyone’s taste!

Across Ecuador’s four wholly distinct eco-systems, there are more animals and plants per square kilometre than anywhere else. It contains the world’s second largest number of endemic vertebrates, third largest number of amphibians, fourth for birds, fifth for butterflies. It has 10% percent of all vertebrate animals on the planet, all hiding in just 0.19% of the earth’s surface. Among them is the guinea pig, a furry little critter that has better reason to hide than, say, the striped hog-nosed skunk. For along with colonial Spanish towns, beach towns, mountain shamans and the bustle of Quito, Ecuadoreans have developed a fond taste for deep-fried guinea pig.

Guinea pigs, it should be noted, are neither from Guinea, nor a pig. It is a domesticated rodent that originates from the Andes, and has long been cultivated as a food source. Europeans brought them back as pets as early as the sixteenth century, and that’s when creatures known locally as cavy, cuy or cuyo took on the moniker of guinea pigs. Pigs, because someone at some point thought they looked like one, and Guinea, because in those days, any exotic creature in Europe simply had to come from the land of Guinea – as exotic a place as medieval idiots could imagine. At least that is one theory. Nobody truly knows why the rodent got its unusual name, but we do know they are effective as human substitutes in medical trials, and look much like a deep-fried rat when served with salad in the town of Cotachi.

Fried cuy remains a treat in Ecuador, enjoyed much like a Thanksgiving Day turkey, on special occasions, and at great expense. The furry entrée sometimes shares its abode with local villagers, who fatten them up for upcoming celebrations. In the village of Quiroga, I pop into a dark shack occupied by three old ladies with toothy grins and a hotel laundry of face wrinkles. Scurrying about are foot-length guinea pigs, oblivious to what will inevitably be an unfortunate end to their current, mutually beneficial relationship. I also check out a local cuy farm, where the production of guinea pigs is a tad more industrial.

Having never owned a pet guinea pig, I might have reacted a little differently if the cages were full of fox terriers or tabby cats. Regardless, any self-respecting Bucket List demands one get a taste of the exotic, to get under the skin of culture – in this case with a knife and fork. And so I head to La Hornilla, one of Cotachi’s air-conditioned cuy eateries, happy to escape the hot equatorial sun. I order fried chicken for hunger, and cuy for kicks. A World Cup qualifier between Ecuador and fierce rival Bolivia blares from a nearby television. Staff grudgingly trudge off to the kitchen to prepare my meal. Ecuador had scored three times by the time my gold-battered cuy arrives, deep-fried in three pots to seal in the flavour. Its tiny claws are gnarled, its sharp teeth blackened. Despite an instant wave of nausea, I remind myself that culture determines what is acceptably edible. My love for pickled herring and chopped liver might horrify a villager in Ecuador. Peeling away the rodent’s crispy skin, I’m disappointed to find there’s not much meat on the bone. What meat there is strings onto my fork like melted orthodontic elastics. I can’t stop thinking about my college pet hamster Harold, procured, named and abandoned by a German traveller named Jens I’d met on an Israeli kibbutz. Harold went missing in my car for two weeks before resurfacing, alive, on my dashboard. True story, but I digress.

Guinea pig tastes like chicken, as so many things do. This is because we are severely limited in the manner in which we compare food. If the meat is light on taste – like turtle, snake, rabbit, dog or crocodile – it could ably substitute for chicken in a chow mien. Rodent too, although seal and whale meat is best left for goulash. Cuy skin does however have a gamey sour tang.

Household pets are an acquired taste, and unlike cognac, brandy and cigars, it is a taste I have little intention to acquire in the future. The Great Global Bucket List however insists you sample local delicacies you would never put on the menu back home. This makes for an unforgettable experience, and a particularly delicious story to tell at dinner parties, I’d suggest waiting until after dessert.

A Bucket List of the World’s Best Night Markets

night-market2

 

There’s simply no choice between a mall and a night market.   Instead of food courts, you have local cuisine cooked before your eyes. Instead of multinational clothing chains, you have handmade knits and knock-off fakes.   Instead of sterile hallways, you have cluttered narrow pathways full of smiles, smells, and secrets.   After shopping around, here’s our pick of the best:

  1. Luang Prabang, Laos

Night markets in Asia are usually loud and chaotic, yet my memory of this sleepy city’s night market, located along Sisavangvong Road, is one of calm. There is very little pushing and prodding to buy this or that, in stark contrast to markets found in neighbouring Thailand or Cambodia. Around 300 traders sell a wide range of goods – from pillows and covers to lanterns to cheap Beer Lao T-shirts, the perfect souvenir from Laos. Without the pressure, it’s almost impossible not to spend your kip, the local currency. It’s always advisable to haggle, and don’t expect the best quality.   Open daily, the market closes early at around 10pm.

  1. Queen Victoria Markets, Melbourne Australia

During the summer months, Melbourne has several vibrant night markets, gathering local artists, designers, traders, with food and entertainment from around the world. Every Wednesday November to March at the Queen Victoria Markets, on the corner of Peel and Victoria streets, you can find the popular Suzuki Night Market, with 35 ethnic food stalls, art, clothes, and jewelry traders. On Fridays in late January/February, you can shop away and enjoy the atmosphere at the Geelong Night Market in Johnstone Park.   Besides the stalls, there is also a health and harmony section, and licensed bars to enjoy a cool drink on a warm summer night.

  1. Huaxi Street Tourist Night Market, Taipei, Taiwan

There are six major night markets in hot and sticky Taipei, with the most famous, and most notorious, being Huaxi, also known as Snake Alley. Once a legal red light district, Snake Alley is known for the exotic dishes served by its restaurants and stalls.   These include snake meat, including their blood or even their venom, milked from their fangs. There’s also turtle meat, deer penis soup, and other delicacies that draw tourists. Surrounding the market are stalls selling all manner of goods, proudly Made in Taiwan.

  1. Summer Night Market, Richmond, BC

During summer, some 300 traders set up stalls each weekend in Richmond, one of the growing satellite cities next to Vancouver.   Reflecting the multiculturalism of Richmond’s large immigrant population, the night market features strong Asian, Indian and Latin American influences. Grab yourself a bubble tea and catch a live salsa performance on the 60ft stage, or just roam the alleys looking for bargains on clothing, electronics and souvenirs. The market attracts some two million visitors a year, and often features themed nights, like Taste of Asia, or Chinese Karaoke Night.

  1. Chiang Mai Night Market, Thailand

Crammed into three blocks on Chan Klan Road, the night market and bazaar of Chiang Mai is extremely popular with visitors.   All manner of goods are on sale from traders packed on the sidewalks, or in purpose-built malls. Friendly tailors beckon you into their shops, old ladies fry up noodles, and lanterns cast a soft glow in the night. Operating every night of the year, the market is considered to be amongst the cheapest in the country.   Don’t expect lasting quality from the goods on sale, although I still have various candleholders and even some shirts I bought many years after my visit. Traders will typically start their price at double what you should pay, so remember to bargain.

  1. Batu Ferringhi Night Market, Penang, Malaysia

The Malay word for night market is “pasar malam”, a popular example of which can be found in Penang at Batu Ferringhi (literally, “Foreigner’s Rock”). Vendors in small stalls sell the usual knick knacks – clothes, shoes, accessories, bags, watches, jewelry, and other goods of authentic or dubious origins. The night market draws tourists with the sweet smells of local cuisine, and is close to a beach and pool area as well.   It sets up each day in the late afternoon and operates from 6pm until the customers thin out.  International hotels are located along the beach strip, with some directly facing the market.

  1. Christmas Market, Nuremburg, Germany

Every Xmas, markets pop up all over the Germany, differing from region to region. Frankfurt has the largest Christmas Market in Germany, along with the tallest Christmas tree. But the most famous Christmas market is in the Bavarian city of Nuremburg. This market is a popular place to pick up toys, ornaments and candles, along with treats like biscuits and sausages roasted over wood fires. Located throughout the old town, the market has nearly 200 wooden stalls, many sporting red and white cloth.   They even compete for the most beautiful and tasteful stall award. More than two million people visit it each year.

  1. Temple Street Night Market, Hong Kong

Hong Kong is a legendary destination, and its most popular night market doesn’t disappoint. There’s a wild variety of goods and services on offer, including fortune tellers, palm readers and impromptu Opera street performances. Open from 2pm onwards, the market is located on Temple Street next to the Jordan MTR station in Kowloon. As with most night markets, street food features prominently. Try some of the sticky sweet desserts and browse for electronics, antiques, and lamps. But remember, you break you buy

  1. Marrakech Night Market, Morocco

Enter the Jemaa El Fna night market near the heart of Marrakech’s medina, and you’ll feel like you’ve stumbled onto a set of Indiana Jones. Expect a cacophony of snake charmers and monkey dancers, hagglers and hustlers, juice being freshly pressed over the sounds of salesmen beckoning their next client. Each night, over 100 open kitchens are set up, serving cheap but delicious Moroccan cuisines to patrons seated at long rows of wooden tables. Each kitchen typically serves one dish, and you might want to watch your food being cooked to avoid any tummy upsets later. The night market is open until 2am in summer, and around midnight in winter

  1. Donghuamen Night Market, Beijing, China

Here’s what I like about this particular night market: where else can you find rows of stalls featuring raw insects, scorpions, crickets, centipedes and lizards, ready to be deep fried in wok for your culinary enjoyment?   Sure, you can stick with dumplings, noodles or fresh fruit, but sometimes, you just find yourself craving a deep fried starfish.   All the prices are marked (in case you’re too hungry to haggle) and conveniently displayed in both Mandarin and English.   Don’t know about you, but I’m salivating at the thought of it!