Visiting Bandhavgarh Tiger Sanctuary

 

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Seeing wild tigers in India is a once in a lifetime experience and definitely something to tick off your bucket list. I was incredibly lucky during my visit and got within 5 metres of one of these majestic creatures, seeing 4 females in total.

Another great reason to visit a National Park is that India is EXHAUSTING. The cities are hectic and dirty and chaotic and hot. For me, heading into rural India to a national park was a great way to escape, recharge and relax. For this reason we also chose to spend more than we usually would and stay in a luxury resort (still waaay cheaper than you would pay elsewhere).

DO NOT MISS GOING TO ONE (OR MORE) OF THE NATIONAL PARKS WHILE IN INDIA.

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Top Tips for Bandhavgarh: 

  1. Book your Safari drives waaaay in advance. The best zone to be in is Tala. Other zones have good periods and bad but Tala is consistent and accordingly is the most popular zone.
  2. Book your own vehicle if possible. Shared vehicles have 6 tourists in them so you will be packed in. Its well worth the slight extra cost for the comfort; being able to move around the park at your own pace; and control your own noise levels (without having to stop for others to take that 100th photo of a deer or deal with someone else’s loud children). I understand if its not affordable but you won’t save much money sharing a ride if you are a group of 2-3. Sharing may be worth considering if you are alone and on a strict budget.
  3. Allow enough time. Don’t travel to rural India to go to a National Park just to do one drive into the park. Remember these are wild animals – you may not see any! Allow a minimum of 3 safari drives and you will hopefully get lucky. If you want to be sure  (as sure as you can be!) allow a week.

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We did 5 Safari drives over 3 days. 1 of these was in the Magadhi Zone (afternoon drive). We saw no tigers here but did come across an even rarer wildcat. We had 4 drives in the Tala Zone (2 morning and 2 afternoon) and spotted tigers on every drive. All safari drives were in our own vehicle with the same driver/guide.

Where to stay: 

We stayed at Tigergarh resort and can absolutely recommend it.

They organised all our drives for us; made us amazing food everyday (of which there was way too much), the rooms were comfortable and the staff were super friendly.

We were the only guests when we stayed there (which was a little weird) but the resort tends to receive mostly only local guests and it wasn’t a holiday time.

Getting there and away: The best way to get to Bandhavgarh is by Train to Umaria. We took an overnight train (definitely the best way to get around in India) from Varanasi: you can read about our trip here. It took 11 hours to get to Umaria from Varanasi. We left Umaria by train to Agra (this journey took almost 14 hours).

We booked pickup from the train station in Umaria through our resort. This cost 1,200 INR (one way).

Getting around:

You probably don’t need to go anywhere but the resort and the park – your resort will drive you here. We needed a pharmacy and to buy some dust masks during our time here and our driver happily stopped for us at the small town to purchase these items on our way back to the resort after a safari drive.

 

What to bring:

  1. Warm clothes in layers so you can remove them as you warm up (the morning drives are absolutely freezing)
  2. Dark, plain clothing (no bright colours as this can startle the animals)
  3. Dust masks (it’s great to have this or at least a scarf to cover your face)
  4. A neck pillow to sit on: the rides are BUMPY
  5. A great camera to capture it all!

What to expect: 

Expect to spend hours driving around a national park: it’s not all tiger sightings. But – enjoy the experience of straining your eyes to see them in the undergrowth and yet always having the guide spot everything first.

Expect to get up at a ridiculous hour for those morning drives – it’s worth it! Tigers are more active in the early mornings.

Expect to be exhausted between drives – you will go to sleep early and probably nap between drives also. You won’t need other activities to keep you occupied – although there is a pool at the resort if you do need something to do after lunch!

Expect to learn some amazing things about tigers and be wowed at the sight of one of these creatures in the wild along with the multitude of other animals you will come across in the park.

GO!

Erika xx

The guide to purchasing a Sari in India (from a foreigner that has no idea what she is doing)

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Step 1: Get an idea of pricing – the best idea is to walk into a few shops and get an idea for the price of different materials before you buy. Each shop should have sections for each price range and you can feel the materials and get a good idea of what each should cost before purchasing.

Note on my own experience: This is absolutely not what I did. I walked into one store in which the sales assistants asked me a general budget and started pulling out millions of fabrics to show me and threw them over me to show me how I looked. I fell in love with this one. I do however feel like I managed to get a relatively good deal but I got lucky and should have done some research first.

Step 2: Choose a store away from the main streets (one that a tourist would be unlikely to stumble upon) and purchase from there. You still may get a tourist savvy shop assistant but you are more likely to come across a store that locals shop at with good quality saris.

Note on my own experience: I walked into a store down an alleyway and up a back staircase. There were 5 indian women shopping in there at the time which I took as a good sign and the cheapest saris started from a very low price so I felt i was getting a good deal with my mid-range sari (the material felt fantastic anyway!).

Step 3: Your sari is just a piece of material: Find a tailor and agree on a cheap price to create a bodice (choli) and petticoat (parkar). Yes you do need both of these. The bodice will be made out of some of the material from your sari. Choose a petticoat with a tie waist. The tailor will likely charge you a higher price than you agreed on anyway so make sure to haggle – however bear in mind that they are creating a garment from scratch for you so don’t haggle them down too low just to get a bargain.

Note on my own experience: The price we agreed on was raised when the tailor added extra touches that we hadn’t agreed on like beads on the end of the strings tying the bodice together and intricate stitching. Sometimes it’s easier not to argue and the tailor did get the garment done in 24 hours for me even though it was a public holiday.

Step 4: Wear your sari out! Find someone to help you tie it (even if you look at tutorials from the internet you will likely still get it wrong). Essentially you fold layers of the material and then tuck it into your petticoat; then throw the remainder over your shoulder. You may need some pins to keep it there. You will get lots of stares but its all positive trust me: enjoy embracing the Indian culture!

Note on my own experience: The manager of the guest house I was staying at helped me tie my sari after she saw me about to leave in it and realised the way I had tied it wasn’t entirely correct.

I am waiting for any excuse to wear my Sari again – it’s a wonderful item to bring home from India.

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Itinerary: 2 days in Varanasi

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Varanasi – the ‘Holy City’

Varanasi is everything that people love about India combined with everything that people hate. It’s a must see destination in my humble opinion. Varanasi combines winding alleyways with life on the river; rural with city; smog with cleansing properties; beggars with tourists and life with death.

GENERAL INFO

Getting there: An Auto-rickshaw is approx. 250INR from the airport while a taxi is approx. 700INR. I suggest a taxi as its a long way and quite cold at night. We booked through our hostel at a higher rate of 900INR as we were arriving at night and as you get close to the ghats the streets are narrow and maze-like – your taxi can’t enter. Our prepaid ride meant someone from our hostel met us where the taxi stopped and led the way to the hostel.

Accommodation: Our hostel in Varanasi was Bhadra Kali Guest House: it was really close to the ghats which was a huge bonus and the staff were very helpful. They booked a boat ride for us at 5am the next morning at a fair rate and helped us out when we couldn’t figure out the hot water (having hot water isn’t really a sure thing either!). If staying near the ghats one thing to be aware of is the houses are all really close together so its very noisy. Next door to our hostel there was a family screaming and crying all night as somebody in the family had just died.

Food: There were some great food places in Varanasi – the trouble is discerning which ones are good and which are the fake copies of the good restaurants. Also, if your hoping to get a beer you are out of luck. No alcohol is permitted near the holy river Ganges. Some highlights in Varanasi were:

  1. Keshari Restaurant is a great option for lunch or dinner. They do great Thali and other cheap indian dishes and it’s a popular spot with locals so a great place for people watching. Find it 20m down a side street off Dashawamedh road. There is a bad copy with Keshari in the name around the corner from here.
  2. Brown Bread Bakery is a tourist hotspot on the first alleyway back from the ghats. It does organic food and has a great rooftop terrace.
  3. Open Hand Cafe is a long way from most of the action but a great rest stop after a long walk from one end of the ghats to the other. They have ACTUAL coffee (a rarity here in India) and its really good.
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Enjoying coffee at Open Hand Cafe, Varanasi

Top Tip: Go on the dawn boat tour – even though its at 5am! Tours run at dawn or dusk but activity is much more frantic at dawn. You feel more of the energy of Varanasi. If you have time then do both but I do suggest being on land for the 7pm river worship ceremony at least once (you can’t see it very well from the boat and part of your tour is spent stopped here). 

DAY 1

You will need to wake up at 5 am on both your mornings here – its absolutely necessary and you can always have a nap later in the afternoon or go to bed at 8pm (like we did!). There is no beer to drink anyway!

On the first day I suggest taking a boat tour along the ganges (your accommodation can arrange this for you or you can haggle with the boats down the river  – anything less than 1000 INR is a good price for a few hours).

Extra Info: We got ripped off while on this trip (the only time in India!) because some boat floated up beside us and gave us offerings – they kept handing them over until we said no thank you and then tried to charge us a huge price for them. We made 3 blessings with the offerings and they were beautiful but i wish we had haggled the price first! We forgot to be suspicious because we were in the middle of the river.

The rest of your day can be spent eating and wandering the alleyways around the Ghats – there are surprises around each corner. At 7pm there is a River worship ceremony at Dashwamedh Ghat – find a great spot to watch the beautiful show.

DAY 2

Spend your second morning (you can sleep in a little later!) walking the Ghats from one end to the other.  Make sure you get to the following ghats:

  1. Munshi and Darbhanga Ghats – these are the most photogenic
  2. Dashwamedh Ghat – lively and colourful
  3. Manikarnika Ghat – the main burning ghat (please be careful not to take photographs here. Photos are fine from the boat but if you try to take pictures from land you will get scammed).
  4. Scindhia Ghat – peaceful: there is a partially submerged temple here.

You will likely end at Assi Ghat which is very close to Open Hand Cafe – time for a well deserved coffee.

I would spend the afternoon shopping. Varanasi has some great shops hidden among its alleyways and an entire main street of sari stores – I purchased my sari in Varanasi and it was a crazy experience!

If you need a break from the shops a good stop is Vishwanath temple – foreigners need to enter at Gate 2. Be aware this temple can be very busy – when we were there the alleyways surrounding it were full of people it was difficult even to figure out where to go.

Erika xx

Itinerary: 48 hours in Delhi

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The tranquility of Fatehpur Mosque

I’ll be honest..I wasn’t really a fan of Delhi. However, as you are pretty much guaranteed to be passing through if you are going to Agra or many other popular places in India you may as well make the most of your time here.

Disclaimer: Some of my negativity about Delhi is because it was pouring with rain the first day we were there and also the red fort was closed.

If you are just headed to the Taj Mahal – pass through Delhi quickly and stay in Agra instead. Trust me on this.

GENERAL INFO

Getting there: Delhi is a transport hub so you will have no problem finding transport in and out of the city. We arrived via plane from Mumbai and booked pickup with our hotel.

Accommodation: We stayed at Hotel City Star which was a mid-range hotel (much more expensive than our usual spend on an everyday hotel but also a necessary luxury heading from one chaotic city to another. I would recommend it as the room was comfortable; the staff were helpful and they have a restaurant on site.

Food: We didn’t find any memorable food spots in Delhi and although the street food is recommended we didn’t try any as we were very short on time – I hear Gali Paratha Wali is great for parathas (stuffed flatbread) and Jalebiwala for Jalebis (similar to syrupy doughnuts).

Top Tip: Connaught Place is very expensive and full of touristy restaurants and bars with absolutely no cool vibes. Avoid for anything more than an evening stroll. Also be wary of people attempting to direct you to the tourist office – there are fake tourist information centres around here.

SUGGESTED ACTIVITIES

There are lots of things to do and see in Delhi so pick and choose from the below depending on what interests you and how much time you have in the city. We covered all of the below (except the Red Fort) in 48 hours including a nap at the hotel while it was raining heavily.

  1. Wander Old Delhi: A suggested route is through the Nai Sarak Bazaar; along Gali Paratha Wali and onto Kinari Bazaar road then left along Chadni Chowk road to Fatehpur Mosque. Around the corner from the mosque is the spice market which is also well worth checking out.
  2. Visit Jama Masjid: there is no fee to enter this mosque but 300 INR to take pictures. No shoes are allowed inside.
  3. Visit the Red Fort: I’m sure its amazing had we been allowed to see it!
  4. Have an evening stroll around Connaught Place. It’s a great place to people watch and enjoy the evening. There is also a monkey temple somewhere around here.
  5. Visit Humayan’s Tomb: this place has not only the tomb itself but gorgeous grounds so its a nice tranquil place to escape the city. Cute squirrels are everywhere!
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Humayan’s Tomb

Let me know if you enjoyed Delhi more than I did so I know what to do next time I need to pass through!

Erika xx

Itinerary: 3 days in Mumbai

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Contemplating the beauty of Chhatrapati Shivaji Museum

Mumbai is a reasonably off the beaten path location in India for foreign tourists making it a great destination to experience local daily life and culture.

GENERAL INFO

Getting there: A prepaid taxi from the airport into Fort costs approx. 800 INR

Accommodation: Prepare to spend a bit more on accommodation than you usually need to in the rest of India. We stayed at the Traveller’s Inn in the Fort area but would not recommend it. The rooms were dirty, the windows let bugs in and there was a really weird guest hanging out on the roof terrace. The staff were nice though!

Food: I always worry about food options as I am a bit of a hygiene freak but we found plenty of good places to eat in Mumbai. Highlights were the cold Kingfisher beers at Cafe Universal down the road from our accommodation; the Mutton Kebabs at Bademiya; and the Biriyani at Leopolds Cafe. Avoid the coffee and don’t touch any Indian wine.

Top Tip: If you are blonde or a redhead be prepared to be constantly harassed for photographs. I found this to be the case much much more frequently in Mumbai than in anywhere else we traveled in India. At one point while at the Gateway of India I had a queue of 30 people lining up to take their photos with me. Some would ask my husband if this was OK rather than asking me.

DAY 1

The best way to get to know a city is to walk it! A great place to start is with the Lonely Planet walking tour of Mumbai (we did this backwards to end up at the Gateway of India). The Lonely Planet walking tour includes interesting spots such as the Oval Maiden recreational ground and the Khala Ghoda neighbourhood (there is also a pavement gallery of emerging artists here that is worth checking out!). If there’s time visit the Chhatrapati Shivaji Museum.

Continue the walk after some lunch by wandering the Causeway market stalls, watching the fishermen work at Sassoon docks and then heading back up towards the Gateway of India. Spend the evening recuperating at Leopold’s Cafe in Colaba- an institution in Mumbai since 1871 but more recently made famous by the book Shantaram.

DAY 2

Walk to the beautiful Chhatrapati Shivaji Railway Station and then on to Mahatma Jyotiba Phule Mandai Market (also known as Crawford Market). Explore the endless array of market stalls. In the late afternoon wander down to the Gateway of India area to take a launch to Elephanta Caves.

Info: Boats run every half an hour from 9am-3pm and the last boat back is at 5:30pm. Cost for the boat is 150 INR return and tickets to the caves are an extra 500 INR each. Only the 2 main caves are worth seeing – can also walk up to Cannon Hill if time.

When you arrive back from Elephanta Caves, you could have a drink at the Taj Mahal Palace Hotel’s Harbour Bar ($$$ Splurge: if your budget allows this!) and then to save some money on dinner I suggest dinner from Bademiya (a street food stall selling fresh grilled kebabs and tikka rolls – open 7pm-3am: there is also a sit down branch).

DAY 3

Early morning taxi to Haji Ali Dargah Mosque. This is a floating mosque 500m off-shore. Pictures of the mosque are more impressive when its surrounded by water but you can only walk over to the mosque itself at low tide so plan your trip accordingly.

After the mosque, make your way to Mahalakshmi Train station. There is a bridge just outside the train station that is a good viewing point to see the traditional laundry process taking place at Dhobi Ghat. If laundry doesn’t sound that interesting to you take a look at the amazing photo below:

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Next, hop on the western line to Churchgate station from Mahalakshmi (need to purchase a ticket beforehand at the ticket counter, try to avoid taking local trains during rush hour – it may be better to take a taxi at this time of day). If you are trying to catch the train in rush hour keep the below tips in mind:

  • Make sure you are waiting at the correct place on the platform to get on.
  • Don’t wait for people to get off just start pushing and only push on if you are in the first wave or you may get pushed off
  • Keep away from the door as people sometimes get pushed out
  • Hold valuables close as pick-pocketing happens
  • If you are a female you can get on the ‘female only’ carriage

Aim to arrive at Churchgate station by 11:30am. You are here to see the Dabbawalas. These are people whose job it is to collect home-cooked lunches from worker’s homes, delivering them to their offices and returning the packages once lunch has finished. Mumbai is the only city in the world that does this. The system doesn’t use any technology but rather a complicated colour coding system yet mistakes only occur at a rate of 1 per 6 million lunches. To see this amazing spectacle in progress; wait at the train platforms until the Dabbawalas start to appear then follow them to see where they go to redistribute their packages.

Spend your last evening in Mumbai at Chowpatty Beach – wander Marine Drive and watch the sunset. The lights you can see when looking back along the harbor are the reason for its nickname ‘The Pearl Necklace’.

Have more time? If you have time to spare after completing this itinerary you can take a tour of Bollywood or even be an extra in a Bollywood movie!

Erika xx

How to: Decide Where to travel next?

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Sunset walk along the beach in Canggu, Bali

If you are anything at all like me, you look at one picture of a beautiful island or exotic wilderness and want to jump on a plane right away. This isn’t usually possible unless your a billionaire with no job – there’s only so much leave I can take from work and only so many times my savings can cover my mortgage while I am gone!

With 195 countries in this world and countless destinations within them, deciding where to travel is much much harder than ever before. I see daily images of places I would rather be – but which place would I most rather be at?

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Lounging next to the infinity pool on the 57th floor of the Marina Bay Sands Hotel, Singapore

I find there are a few key things to keep in mind – looking at your current priorities makes this decision easy!

1. Cost: Most people, when deciding to travel, only consider whether they can afford a trip or not. Instead, consider your finances – if you have any spare income at all you can afford a trip, its just about prioritising. My husband and I try to do one overseas trip a year but some years we have more spare cash than other years, so we chose a trip based on what we can afford.

For example: In 2015, we got married (which is SUPER expensive however strictly you keep it to just the basics!). This meant that our overseas trip for the year would be our honeymoon but we couldn’t afford a luxury trip to the Maldives (my ideal honeymoon destination) because we had just paid for a wedding. Instead, we spent a week or so in beautiful New Caledonia which is much closer to home for us (we live in New Zealand) and less known for its luxury resorts. If we went to the Maldives, we would have spent way more on flights and would have had to skip staying in one of those beautiful over the water resorts (which is really the purpose of going to the Maldives isn’t it?) Now we can save that for another time – maybe our 20 year anniversary!

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Here I am frolicking in the water in Noumea, New Caledonia

A holiday by the beach is what most people look for for a honeymoon – and we got to have this in a less luxurious way by choosing New Caledonia. If the style of holiday you can have is a lot more flexible, think about heading to a country where the cost of living is cheap – your money goes a lot further in many Southeast Asian, South American and African countries than it does in say most parts of Europe and the USA.

This brings me to the next thing to think about before you decide on where to go on holiday:

2. Decide what type of holiday you would like to have. What are you into? If you are like me – you like to experience almost everything so this makes the decision much more difficult. However, I still think about what I would most like to do by thinking about what I would like the holiday to achieve: Have I been stressed at work lately – I think I need a relaxing holiday in this case. Do I need to update my wardrobe – how about a trip focused on shopping? Have I been really disappointed with every restaurant I have eaten at lately? Let’s go somewhere with amazing food! Have I been feeling bored with my daily routine? Time to have an adventure.

You can always combine these things: How about heading to Italy for amazing food AND shopping? Or to Mexico for beaches AND adventure?

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I’ll admit it – I went to Carnival in Rio De Janiero, Brazil just to have the best party of my life!

Part of deciding what holiday to have includes when you can go: for example, I would avoid going anywhere in the rainy season (especially if they have monsoons). If your headed to the beach, pick summer in the country you are at – you won’t mind if it gets to 40 degrees because you will be swimming constantly. If you are sightseeing or heading to a city, pick a time that will be cooler as you don’t want to be walking around all day sightseeing in sweltering heat.

3. How long can you go for? This should play a significant role in how you decide where to go. The distance you are planning to travel should be based on the length of time you have available for your trip – for me, getting to Europe means about 2-3 days spent travelling. For that reason, if I have a week’s holiday I am not going to go to Europe. I might pop over to Australia or one of the Pacific Islands, possibly somewhere in Southeast Asia where I can take one flight and not have to transfer. If I have three weeks or more, I am more likely to venture further afield.

In a week or two’s holiday, I wouldn’t try to fit in more than one country – If I have more than two weeks, I may try to see parts of two countries: such as make the trip over from Spain into Morocco. If you have months (lucky you!) It’s best to base yourself in one part of the world so you can experience more of those places that are difficult to get to on their own. For example, I spent six months in Central America which was a good amount of time. I would discourage purchasing one of those ‘Round the World’ flights advertised by travel agents as you end up only going to those places that the airline flies to all the time. These are easy to see on a stopover or a much shorter trip.

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To get to Havana, Cuba I had to fly via Mexico – as I was already in Mexico it was easy and so so worth it!

There is one final thing that I would recommend when choosing where to travel, it is the one most often overlooked but really important when choosing where to go.

4. What stage of your life are you in? Where you are at in your life should play a big role in making travel plans – especially if like me you want to fit so much into your life. For me, I try to organise things so that I don’t miss out later on. I did 6 months of travelling when I was young and carefree and nothing was holding me back -do it while you can as your life won’t be that way for ever! Now, I have a husband and a mortgage and a career – my wanderings need to be more carefully structured and fit into my 4 weeks holiday a year.

Another thing to think about is children. If you want to have children they will severely limit your ability to travel – its not impossible of course! But you will have less funds available and more people to pay for on your trips! You also need to decide more carefully where you will travel – not only once you have children in your life but beforehand too. For example, if you travel to South America the risk of Zika virus means, you need to wait 6 weeks (women) or 6 months (men) before you conceive a child! Best do this a while before you want to have a child then! Or at least don’t take your partner along ladies!

To show how these factors have shaped my decisions, here’s an example. I would love so much to visit Disneyland in the USA. However, I plan to have children so why not wait until I can take them? They would love Disneyland even more than I would and its the perfect trip to take children on. I also really wanted to visit India but India is a terrible place to take young children because they touch everything and put it in their mouths and India is SO DIRTY! So, I went there in Jan/Feb this year while I still had the chance!

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Exploring the intricate carvings at the City Palace in Jaipur, India

Think of these 4 things next time you are considering a holiday and the decision should be easy – or at least easier than it was before! If worst comes to worst just throw a dart at a world map and see where it lands!

Let me know in the comments how you choose where to travel or where you have decided to go next after using my guide. I love hearing about all the exciting places you are going and it might help me decide where to travel next!

Erika xx

 

Tacos vs. Tostadas

When I first arrived in Mexico City, I used my Lonely Planet guide to find a place to eat. What was I looking to experience? The famous Mexican Taco of course!

Until now, I have been raised a naïve kiwi girl. I thought that traditional Mexican food was the Tex-Mex version that can be found in the shelves of our supermarkets (Ol’ el Paso kits ring a bell for anyone?) and when I felt I had found the Lonely Planet recommended taco place I was raving about how good my taco I ate there was. I only realised my mistake when I returned days later. I saw the place I was actually directed to by the guidebook and discovered that the hard shell taco-resembling meal I had eaten was actually a Chicken Tostada. Nevertheless, I went back to the original hole-in-the-wall and made two pacts to myself:

1. Don’t rely too heavily on Lonely Planet (But use its suggestions to find better, cheaper options nearby!)
2. Learn about Mexican food!

Does this prove the stupidity of tourists…or just of me? Is this a common occurrence? This experience really helped me to see that for a cultured, well travelled girl I am really quite un-cultured and inexperienced. No longer will I assume ANYTHING.

I am happy to say that this experience was the beginning of my ferocious passion for cooking and eating Mexican Cuisine.

Until next time,
Love Erika xx