The day we visited Tulum

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The day we visited Tulum

We got woken up a few times last night to epic thunder and lightening, but the rain had cleared in the morning and Gwyn picked us some coconuts off the palm trees for breakfast. 

We got to Tulum ruins first thing. The site is small but beautifully set against the coast and 'Castaway' beaches. The ruins themselves are also much smaller than the others we have been to and like Chichen Itza, you can't climb on them or discover them more. The setting completely makes this place; it's very photogenic. When we left, we must have passed over 200 tourists walking down the 800 metre entrance path, so come here first thing and make sure you do the beach here

We decided to head back to the quieter beaches we were at last night for some R&R before the drive to Belize. Turquoise sea and white sand beaches - the best way to finish of our Mexican adventure. This is the life. 

Rather than stay the night, we made our way to Chetamal (Mexico-Belize border crossing) for a bit of McDonald's freebie wi-fi action. Excited for our new chapter :-)

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The day we dived a Cenote

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The day we dived a Cenote

On recommendation, we did a few dives at Dos Ojos (huge caverns) with Cenote Dive Centre (google them). We'd heard from other people we met how they had bad experiences with well known Mexican-run companies, but Dave (Canadian Owner) has 20 years in the business and the experience was much personal, as opposed to being in a huge group. The two dives we did were similar, with huge formations, a bat cave and tiny fish. It was a cool experience, but like ice diving, it's a one-off thing for us.  We prefer open-water dives. 

After lunch we headed to Akamul, for free snorkelling. We snorkelled around half moon bay (with only us in the lagoon), which was filled with loads of varieties of hard and soft coral and a few fish. The next bay along (behind the dive shop), we snorkelled for a couple of hours with 7 sea turtles (including a baby one), rays and squid. We loved it. The best things in life are free ;-). 

We decided to camp near Tulum along the beach. However, Dougal got stuck in the sand, but after 30 minutes of 10 Mexican men pushing and a pick-up towing us out, he was free. Completely blame Gwyn on this one. He made up for it by doing a wicked BBQ on the beach, 4 metres away from sea, watching the lightening in the distance over the Caribbean sea.

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The day of the underwater museum

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The day of the underwater museum

Like Cabo Lucas, Cancun has the usual overpriced watersports activities, so we opted to have a chilled morning for once and went onto the resorts along zona hotela, using their facilities for free (no-one ever asked us if we were staying there). The beaches are nicer further north you go, but Playa Delfines was quiet, so we stayed around that area.

In the afternoon we went diving with Scuba Cancun, to see the underwater museum. There was a small house, a car, sculptures, frames,etc. We saw a lot of fish, a turtle and sea spiders. For $48USD pp, it was worth it.

Later, we went to Playa del Carmen, made camp, had a birthday meal, followed by a cake with candles.

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The day we visited Chichen Itza

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The day we visited Chichen Itza

We woke up at sunrise and wondered around Merida. It's known to have the prettiest plaza in Mexico, but although we thought it was nice, we've certainly seen better eg Campeche. Merida does have some attractive churches and Cathedral though.

We then drove to Chichen Itza, so we could beat the tour groups to it. Surprisingly it was really quiet for the first hour we were there. However, the site itself was a little underwhelming for us. If we hadn't been to any other Mayan ruins, we probably would've been 'wowed', but you can't get close to them, let alone climb them; the site and pyramids are smaller than Teo and Palenque; and it doesn't have that mysterious spiritual setting such as Monte Alban (on top of a mountain) or Palenque (in the jungle). It was packed with stalls selling gimmicky t-shirts and glued-together masks too. However, the ball court there was the biggest we've seen and you could actually stand inside it, so you get a look at the facades. It's worth noting that these ruins are three times the price as the others, so it doesn't make for a cheap day out.

All in all, it wasn't our favourite, but we've ticked off another seventh wonder of the modern world, so it's a must-see.

Just 3km south of Chichen Itza, we went to the Ik Kil cenotes (caves) for lunch. It was seriously cool way of swimming, with vines hanging 60 metres above and the sun beaming in from the giant hole. Apparently this is the most tourist, but as it's our first cenote, we have nothing to compare it to. We enjoyed it and it has platforms to practice those dive bombs.

After we headed to Cancun and booked onto a few little treaties for my birthday celebrations. The money has dried up on the Mexican budget, what with the police issues that we didn't predict (see previous blog notes), so our change-up money from the parentals has come in useful. Muchos gracias if you are reading this :-)

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The day we went skinny dipping in the jungle

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The day we went skinny dipping in the jungle

In morning we went to Palenque ruins. The site is massive and you could spend a week seeing everywhere, so we stuck to the popular temples and plazas. This is definitely our favourite ruins so far - the setting in the jungle completely makes it. We then did a tour of the flora and fauna of the national park. We spent lunch in a secluded waterfall in the jungle, skinny dipping in the crystal clear waters.

Afterwards we drove to Campeche, which is an UNESCO fishing village, surrounded by old city walls. The plaza and surrounding rainbow coloured buildings were immaculate. It was like a film set. We went to see the former high society house at number 6, which was disappointing as there were only a few rooms to see. Near the plaza there was also a music and light fountain show that went on for an hour. It's not the Bellagio, but it makes a nice place to chill out.

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The day of Linzis birthday

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The day of Linzis birthday

I'd love to say I opened a load of presents and cards, but travelling during birthdays just isn't quite the same as it is at home, and with time constraints, the show must go on ie driving day continues to Palenque. Gwyn has got me the trip to Galapagos on a liveaboard in August 2014, so it's hardly worth complaining about and sang me 'happy birthday'. We intend to celebrate once we meet friends in Cancun with one of Walmart's finest birthday cakes and tequila shots all round...

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The Day of the Dead (part 2)

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The Day of the Dead (part 2)

We spent the day in Oaxaca relaxing, munching our way through cafes and catching up for the first time with our families on Skype. Day of the Dead was still going strong throughout the city, with a continuation of yesterday's events. 

We left the festivities behind to make head way on the route to Palenque. Unfortunately, the only way to accomplish the first 200km of trip was to endure 2 metre visibility, with rain, in the dark and over a mountain (with elevation reaching up to 3000 metres and sheer drops). After 3 hours we called it quits and parked on a make-shift construction area, only to be woken an hour later by some strange Mexican man having a staring contest with us, them finally ushering us to go. It was weird.

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The Day of the dead

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The Day of the dead

Again, we woke up for sunset in the mineral springs (and a wash ;-) ) and did a few short hikes around the area for different vistas of the frozen waterfall. We then head for Mitla, which had ruins with stone carvings (unique in Mexico apparently). It also had an extensive artisan market nearby selling the usual array of goodies. We bobbed along Mex 190 stopping at a few Mescal distilleries, but they weren't as good as the Tequila ones and with their 'get them in, get them out' conveyor belt of tours it was a little too impersonal for us. Plus they had a lot of the creamy Mescals to taste - a give away that it was geared towards gullible gringos. So...we moved on to Teotitlan del Valle, famed for their weaving workshops and demonstrations. We completely appreciated the amount of work involved to create these rugs, carpets, bags, etc, but they weren't really our taste. Still, check them out for yourselves, as you'll bag a bargain if they are your thing.

After Teo, we went to El Tule, to view the largest tree in the world. At 11 metres wide and 42 metres high, it probably is true. It's also at least 1500 years old! Quite a bizarre attraction, but it's a cool thing to see. NB you can't go and do the 'tree hugging' photo op like you can with the redwoods in California, so it's hard to see the scale of it in the pictures. 

We headed back to Oaxaca for the Day of Dead festivities. It's impossible to write everything we saw, but as a summary there were the people running around with fireworks, bands trying to out play each other, food being thrown, parades in the backstreets, 'dead' themed performances, etc. It was awesome. Mexicans know how to party. Fact.

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The Day we got wood

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The Day we got wood

So after a freaky night, we headed straight out the city to see Monte Alban. These are ruins set on a mountain and the morning mist gave them such an eerie appearance. Again, we were the first people there, but the tours groups started arriving at 9am. We both agreed that we preferred these ruins more than Teotihuacan, despite their lack of popularity.  Hopefully, you like the pictures and can see the appeal.

Next stop was San Antonio Arrazola, which was a town that made colourful wooden animal sculptures. It's a complete tourist trap, but we liked them. It's the type of thing we both get sucked into. We spent far too long contemplating, but opted for a wooden turtle and dragonfly. They may look ridiculous at home in the kitchen... 

Then we headed to Cuilapam, which was home to the beautiful, historic monestry, Ex Dominicano. It's worth the stop if you're passing.

Given it is Thursday, we also went to Zaachila's Thursday market. We didn't see any foreigners and it was a bit overwhelming, with the amount of action going on. There were so many stalls selling anything and everything, not to mention some interesting treats and the 'pick your live animal to kill'. 

Afterwards, we stopped by San Bartolo Cayotepec, which is known for its black pottery. There's some beautiful intricate work to be admired but buying anything and having to store it in the van for a year, hoping it won't smash, was not going to happen. It's surprisingly cheap to buy though.

Despite it being Halloween night, we decided to head down to Hierve El Agua for a more peaceful evening. NB The last 11km to get here requires a 4x4. We saw many attempts by the rental vehicles that did not make it. Once here, the mineral springs offer cliff-top and frozen waterfall panoramas. It's a unique bathing experience and right up my street. Watching the sunset, swimming alone in the infinity pools was so relaxing, capped of a rather perfect sight-seeing day. Smiles all round.

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The day we had grasshopper for dinner

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The day we had grasshopper for dinner

Oaxaca is another Mexican colonial town, but has plenty to do with its day trips in and around the city. In a nutshell, we went around Parque Juraz, which had loads of interesting 'Day of the Dead' displays and shrines; down the Alcala, which had the usual array of arty cafes and galleries; around the Zocalo, which is surrounded by elegant buildings and churches.  We practically went to every church in central Oaxaca, including Iglesias de La Campania, San Juan de Dios and Santo Domingo. The latter church has 3-D relief images near the entrance which are particularly impressive. We also hired an unofficial guide (they work for tips) at the entrance and his 15 minute speech was worth the 50 pesos (£2.50). Basicilia de la Soledad, Templo de San Felipe Neri and the Catedral also make pretty pictures. It might be the time of year, but Oaxaca is a fascinating place with lots of action aka a mini Mexico City. We also noticed for the first time quite a few foreigners.

Later on we mooched around the massive Mercado Juarez, which was manic. I tasted the grasshoppers, which were surprisingly alright (similar to Scorpian, but sprinkled with the Mexican spice for the after-kick); Gwyn opted for the famous chocolate mole (in his own words "mole was a bad choice").

We got a few tour guide leaflets, so we could steal their itineraries and do them ourselves, but if you are travelling independently and/or don't have a 4x4 vehicle, then I'd go for a tour, as they're cheap as chips! At night we went to the recommended Guelaguetza Show. Essentially it's split into 12 parts (representing different villages) with colourful costumes, live music and folk dance. It was an alright show: the people were lovely, but it did get a bit repetitive (men stamping and the women swirling around with their skirts).

We went to bed at 11pm, only to woken at midnight with someone trying to break into our van. We'd not locked the back door from the outside (just the inside) so I think someone was just trying their luck. Mexico is more opportunist crime than how the media make it out to be, but it was still quite scary. They quickly scarped as soon as they heard our voices.

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The day we had breakfast on a pyramid

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The day we had breakfast on a pyramid

Having driven to Teotihuacan the night before, we were first people at the gate (number 2 to avoid the confusion we had) at 7am. We first climbed the highest pyramid (Piramide of the Sun), and then for another angle, climbed the second highest (Piramide of the Moon). Even though these are 'only' the third biggest pyramids in the world, there's no doubting that these don't have the same 'wow' factor as their larger rivals. What the Mexican pyramids do have in their favour is, you can climb them all the way to the top and we had the whole site to ourselves for the first 2 hours, so watching the sunrise on top of the pyramid with a few hot air balloons over us, was one of those travelling highlight moments. At 9:30am the tour groups started arriving, so we headed to the La Ciudadela/ Templo de Quetzalcoatl area to avoid the crowds. This is a must-do (even if you are tired of walking by now) as it's not like the other two. Albeit it's smaller, but if you climb it, you are able to see facades and carvings in their original state, rather than behind glass in a museum. By this point, the Mexican mid-morning heat had kicked in, so we headed to the museum and Jardins Botanico (both didn't take long to do). There's the usual hawkers pressuring you to buy, but they only came at 10am, so coming early here definitely pays of. All in all, we spent a full 5 hours around the site, and for a price tag of 57 pesos (about £3) to get in, it's winner winner chicken dinner.

NB If you have the cash, I'd recommend to do this site in a hot air balloon before exploring on foot, as the postcard pics looked wicked from this height. Plus, a hot air balloon ride over somewhere awesome is a definite bucket list goal. We've been in one before and although we would've liked to have done it here, it was way over our travel budget for our Mexico section. C'est le vie.

Next stop...Oaxaca (the city with the cool name).

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The day we played with cats and dolls

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The day we played with cats and dolls

You haven't been Mexico until you've gone on a trajinera (gondola) ride on the Xochimilico canal system. We bargained hard for a 4 hour trip for 500 pesos (£25 ish) for 2 people. For 3.5 hours we didn't see a single tourist. The ride was awesome - a freaky doll island with cats all over the place, the sculpture of the weeping ghost woman, Day of Dead sculpture island, beers for £1, Mexican banquet...then came the crowds...mariachi singers and drunken foreigners (good mix of both aspects).

We took a lot of pictures of the doll island. The story behind this was some kookie old guy thought the dolls protected him. When he was alive he would push a pram full of them around Mexico City. Each to their own. Visitors actually donate their broken dolls, teddies, barbies to the island. He also liked cats and there's at least 10 roaming about the place. This was as far as our Spanish understanding got us. Still...interesting. 

As we can't officially drive our vehicle around Mexico City today (see previous day issues) we drove as frantically as we could to the nearest wi-fi cafe to chill for once. After the dealing with the stupid sat-nav, arguing, and barely making the green light...we got there with no police encounters.

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The day we put Gimp masks on

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The day we put Gimp masks on

Mexico City. Didn't think we'd ever make it here. A milestone in the trip; we hit 5000 miles on the clock. Today consisted of A LOT of walking (the are metros are cheap, but you see more walking about in my opinion...plus it works off those tacos). As we were staying in the centro historico, everything major was within walking distance, so we went around Alameda Central including the Bellas Artes; saw the Casa de Azulejos (house of tiles); lots of churches; the Zocalo where there was a massive protest (about fuel, I think) full of thousands of people; the Catedral Metropolitana; and of course the Templo Major (Aztec site and museum). The plazas dotted about the city were pretty with great cafes for that caffeine fix. Plaza Santo Domingo won us over with it's big letters. See photos. Of course, there was a 'on the street shop' every few metres selling literally anything you can think of...police taser gun anyone?! For a proper Mexican shopping experience visit Centro de Artesanias la Ciudadela for those kitsch souvenirs and fab singers. We liked. 

Mexico City has to be one of the most interesting cities I have ever been to. There is something going all the time - day or night. You could spend hours watching the world go by in awe...and that's not even the street performers. Traffic here is carnage and like most Mexican cities, stray dogs and rubbish are a bit of a problem, but on the whole, it's a beautiful city. I didn't feel particularly unsafe, but neither did I go swinging around the camera to attract that kind of attention. There are a lot of museums here, so you could spend a month seeing all them, but it's not really our cup of tea.

In the evening we wanted to have a real flavour of Mexican culture, so we put on our brightly coloured gimp masks to watch the semi-final wrestling match at Arena Mexico. To say people were into it, would be an understatement. Buy tickets at the arena (there's no additional admin charges and they're legit). We paid 168 pesos (about £8) for third row seats. It was fairly entertaining, definitely a good laugh and impressive skills on show. A Mexican must-do. NB You aren't meant to take your camera inside, but we managed to sneak it in. No-one was fussed about us snapping away until Mystico came on, then it was just phone-taking pics. Made no sense.

Make sure you also go to Torre Lation Americano for a night observation of the city. We swindled a freebie by saying we were having a drink in the restaurant, then 'accidentally' pressed 42.

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The day we escaped police bribe in Mexico city

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The day we escaped police bribe in Mexico city

In the morning we strolled around Morelia again and took pictures of Santuario de Guadalupe, Calz Fray Antonio de San Miguel, Callejon del Romance, Fuente Las Tarascas, the Catedral, Palacio Clavijero, Palacio de Gobierno, Palacio de Justica, etc. We also went to sample and purchase sweets from Mercado de Dulces, which included such as treats as ate de fruta ( coloured cubes...that did not taste good); Cocadas (caramelised coconut - as you'd expect, but were quite nice, if you like coconut); Jamoncillo (like fudge, but not as good as the UK stuff); Obeas Con Cajeta (carmel filling between two wafers...yum); Morelianos (pancake looking, waffle tasting heaven). Later, we went to Casa de las Artesanias, which given the time of year, was Day of the Dead themed.

Morelia is by far our favourite Mexican city so far. The city is so well preserved that it's on the UNESCO list. Surprisingly, not many tourists go here, so we didn't get harassed at all. It also felt the safest city we'd been to.

Things seem to getting better and better, until...

We were stuck in Mexico City's neverending traffic and then got pulled by the police. They begin to tell us we had to pay a fine as we were not allowed to drive our vehicle into the city on today's date. I'd read about this - the last digit of your registration plate determines when you are prohibited from driving said vehicle in the city on a specified day. This only applied Monday -Friday, and our registration plate ended with a 6, which was a Monday restriction. There was another restriction in relation to vehicles over 9 years old, where one Saturday a month, the same restriction applied to the vehicle. Unfortunately, I was unsure whether the latter applied today, given the website (just google it) is in Spanish. Joyful.

The officers asked for Gwyn's ID and the vehicle permit, then used their friend on the telephone to interpret, who informed us we had been stung with a 8000 pesos (about $650USD/£400GBP) fine. We refused out right and said we'd pay it at a police station. After 15 minutes they got bored and let us go. Another day, another bribe. NB If ever in this situation, only give photocopies of documents and if asked if you have a phone, deny having one. Also, say you will only pay fines at the police station, then get a receipt and make a complaint at Sectur (foreign advice service). We later found out that the restrictive vehicle use on the Saturday was not even today, so if we had any doubts about whether it was in fact a genuine fine, it definitely was not the case.

We finally got to the hotel. We're staying at Hotel Metropol. It's apparently a 4 star, but it's all front of house; the rooms are basic. Still...we got it cheap from www.hotels.com and it's right in the middle of the historical district. Plus, it has a power shower we can completely stand up in; actual human-sized beds with no fear of banging our heads; free wi-fi; and free parking, albeit it was sketchy times if Dougal would make it under the barrier (phew). Hello, room service...

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The Day we got all cultural

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The Day we got all cultural

Having seen Guadalajara in the night glow, we spent the morning, retracting our steps and visited the gorgeous 4 plazas around the cathedral, with their manicured gardens, elaborate fountains and impressive masonry convention. We had breakfast on a cafe's balcony facing the cathedral. Perfect start. The cathedral inside isn't anything to write home about, but it's exterior makes up for it. We went on the GDL open top bus tour (departs outside the cathedral) around the city to learn about the history. The English audio guide on it was poorly recorded, but for a cheap 100 pesos, we can't complain too much. Would still recommend to do. 

We then pottered about the markets and took a horse ride around the plazas. Bargain hard ;-). 

In the afternoon, we arrived at Lago de Patzcuaro, stopping at towns such as Tzintzuntzan (very pretty by the way) and Patzcuaro. The lake was nice enough, but nothing special. We didn't bother going to the island in the middle as it didn't seem like much. It was a good place to munch and relax, but there wasn't a big enough draw for us to stay. 

We arrived in Morelia in the evening and parked near the Jardin Azteca (free and convenient to walk around). The Av Acueducto had a row of arches lit up and most of the major monuments throughout the city also had some colour projected onto it. The fountains and Cathedral were definitely the city's winners and I'd recommend the postcard picture-perfect Callejon de Romance, for quaint bars and chic restaurants. We spent the rest of the night sat at Cafe Catedral watching the 'hit and miss' performers - the best of which included a funny mime act and an impressive male choir.

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The day we got smashed on the Tequila Trail

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The day we got smashed on the Tequila Trail

When in Rome...

Today,had to be on the tequila trail. We decided to sack off the tours and to pick the distilleries ourselves. We went to Mundo Cuerva (seeing as it's so popular in the UK); Sauza (which had pretty gardens, but the tour guide rushed us around and seemed bored - in fairness, she probably does the same speech 10 times a day); and La Cofradia (by far the most interesting, informative and you got to see the whole process from start to finish). All tours included plenty of different tequila tasting and happy ending Margaritas. Again, La Confadia, being the least commercial won hands down for the quality award.  Although, at that point, they could've given us fuel and we would've drank it. We actually spent 4 hours in the place, including dinner in the restaurant, where we tried amongst other dishes, the local speciality torta ahogada (literally 'drowned sandwich), a chili sauce-soaked pork roll. We both decided to taste the extra hot sauce before we drowned it even more. OMG - I actually lost the power of speech at one point. Not sure, how I'll cope with the hottest chili in the world tasting in a few weeks...

Oh, good purchase alert - buy a tequila barrel. They're really cheap (abut 100 pesos), and funky souvenir to display at home (we think anyway).

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The day we spent talking mechanical jargon in Spanish

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The day we spent talking mechanical jargon in Spanish

So, we woke up bright and early, to find the van would not start. Argh. After Gwyn spent a few hours playing with it, a highway service man came along and jump started it. We managed to make it to Guadalajara, but spent the rest of the afternoon with Dougal, making sure he was well again (and to be honest, I didn't trust leaving the keys and our 'home' in someone else's hands). The mechanics didn't seem to rip us off THAT much. They charged 500 pesos (about £25) for 2 hours work. Meh. 

Later, it was another McDonald's abusing the wi-fi night, talking plans and snapping pics of Guadalajara all lit up at nights.

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The day we spent romancing in Vallarta

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The day we spent romancing in Vallarta

Good morning Puerto Vallarta. Sunrise on the beach, surrounded by jungle behind us. Happy days indeed. We headed to the Jardins Botanicos de Vallarta and was escorted around by 2 dogs. Gwyn attracts them everywhere we go. The gardens were pretty enough and we learnt interesting facts about some of the plants. There is an 'advanced' hike that goes around the main house, with a clear water river running through it, which we chilled out in for awhile. We then went to the main house for panoramic views and the most expensive milk shakes we've ever had ($10USD/£6GBP each!). They were delicious though. Afterwards, we mooched along the beaches and malecon, browsing at the handicrafts and sampling the seafood snacks on sticks, with a bit of tequila tasting for good measure. Once off the main streets and plazas, Vallarta was so peaceful and pretty. It was quite romantic wondering through the cobbled streets, then along the river. 

That evening, we stopped in a lay-by somewhere between Vallarta and Guadalajara.

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The Day we went on a booze cruise to Cave Beach

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The Day we went on a booze cruise to Cave Beach

Finally, we got to Puerto Vallarta in time for the 8am tour to Islas Marietas. We spent the day paddle boarding and snorkelling around uninhabited islands, abusing the unlimited bar, watching the strange Mexican performances and eating the best buffet food I've ever come across.  It was the perfect day as we had made it onto the cave beach.  Take note, as there is only a 40% success rate of getting onto the beach as it depends on the tide and sea conditions, which are not known until the boat gets there (how they wouldn't know that before they depart and take your money we question...erm). We booked with Vallarta Adventures, which is a popular professional company, but they aren't cheap. 

We spent some time in the secluded cave with perfectly clear waters. One of my Mexican highlights.

Later, we drove up the coast and through the jungle. We made camp near a secluded beach cove and watched the sunset whilst swimming in the sea.

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The day we had great sea food in Mazatlan

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The day we had great sea food in Mazatlan

The road to Mazatlan continues with us playing Russian roulette with the petrol, as we barely make it next town to fill up. Ironically, Mexico is full of petrol stations and the minute you are running low, there seems to be a short supply...and lots of hills.

After we strolled along the malecon in Mazatlan including going to Playa Olas Atlas, we headed to historical section for a look around the Plazuela Machado, the cathedral, Centra Mercado and the Teatro Angela Peralta. It was a great town to just meander about and get lost in. The seafood restaurants on the front are also highly recommended. Unfortunately the cliff divers failed to show when we were there for their weekend performances near the Observation Deck on the malecon, so check before you come if this is something you want to see.

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