Tulum beach, Mexico.
5 best beaches in Mexico, without the tourists
Forget the clichéd Cancun beach experience. Escape the crowds (and drunken tourists who can’t handle their tequila sunrises), with these suitably secretive places to soak up Mexico’s heat. Playa Carrizalillo beach [caption id="attachment_16525" align="alignnone" width="1024"] Playa Carrizalillo beach, Mexico.[/caption] Where: Puerto Escondido, Oaxaca. Why: Puerto Escondido might be better known for having one of the best surfing pipelines at Zicatela Beach, but tucked away just a few minutes past the city centreis a little beach that’s the makings of a tropical holiday dreams.   Not unlike the set of blockbuster film The Beach, Playa Carrizalillo is like the smaller, more rugged cousin of Thailand’s Maya Bay on Phi Phi Leh Island - minus Leo.   Sitting snugly under a thick canopy of rainforest trees in between two rocky headlands, this beach remains calm all year round. Best for: Lazy swimmers and snorkelers. Getting there: Playa Carrizalillo is a straight 15-minute walk west from the city centre of Puerto Escondido. However it’s worth taking a taxi since the route is a busy highway and the taxi fare will only cost you 30 pesos (about $2.50 AUD).   To get to the beach you’ll then need to trek down 167 steps, but as the sweat begins dripping keep in mind that a small canteen awaits at the bottom offering Coronas and ceviche. Tulum beach [caption id="attachment_16527" align="alignnone" width="1024"] Tulum beach, Mexico.[/caption] Where: Yucatan Peninsula, Quintana Roo. Why: Ok, we have to admit that many tourists have now cottoned on to this stunning stretch of coastline, but we couldn't discuss Mexico beaches without mentioning it.   Tulum is an idyllic spot to take a breather and enjoy what the New York Times has described as "the perfect spot for a yoga holiday".   However if you’d rather spend your time at the beach soaking up the rays with a beer than in downward dog, there’s plenty of space to do just that as the entire length of Tulum is lined with chalky white sand and sparkly waters.   Tulum is also home to some of the most interesting Mayan ruins, sitting atop a 12-metre-high cliff edge, overlooking the spectacular Caribbean coastline. Best for: Yogis and history buffs. Getting there: The section of beach that features Mayan ruins is located about one kilometre east of Highway 307.   The roads in Tulum are pancake flat it’s worth renting a bicycle and working off those tacos. Most beaches are within a 20-minute cycle from the city centre. Bacalar lagoon [caption id="attachment_16523" align="alignnone" width="1024"] Bacalar lagoon, Mexico.[/caption] Where: 40 kilometres north of Chetumal, Quintana Roo, or about 240 kilometres southwest of Tulum. Why: While not technically a beach, this lagoon is perhaps one of Mexico’s most underrated and spectacular swimming holes.   Also known as ‘the lagoon of seven colours’, Bacalar is a vast expanse of water that appears to be speckled in varying blue hues and pearlescent greens.   It’s not hard to see why buccaneers fought viciously over this land for years. Best for: Pirates of the Caribbean fans and nature lovers. Getting there: Most travellers happen upon Bacalar by chance, but for those in the know the only way to get there from Tulum is via a two-and-a-half hour bus ride with ADO. Isla Holbox Island [caption id="attachment_16524" align="alignnone" width="1024"] Isla Holbox island, Mexico.[/caption] Where: The island lies about11 kilometres off the northern tip of the Yucatan Peninsula. Why: As untouched as it is naturally beautiful, the biggest development here is the sand roads that weave across the island.   As a result, Isla Holboxis a sanctuary for wildlife, home to almost 150 different species of birds, as well as gentle giants of the sea, whale sharks, which you can swim with.   It’s also worth noting that the water here is much darker than in other parts of the Caribbean because it’s mixed in with the Gulf of Mexico.   The island itself is teeny tiny, spanning just 40 kilometres by three kilometres - a good thing given the absence of any street signs.   But no need to worry about getting lost - every beach is roughly two minutes from the city centre…if you can even call it that. Best for: Nature lovers, twitchers and those wanting to escape the hustle and bustle of Cancun. Getting there: Ferries operate between Isla Holbox and fishing port of Chiquila, approximately two-and-a-half hours from Cancun.   If travelling from Cancun, head west to El Ideal and watch out for signs to Isla Holbox.   travelyucatan.com Troncones beach [caption id="attachment_16526" align="alignnone" width="1024"] Troncones beach, Mexico.[/caption] Where: 32 kilometres northwest of Zihuatanejo, Guerrero, or 280 kilometres north of Acapulco. Why: Nestled between the Sierra Madre mountains and the Mexican Riviera, Troncones is a peaceful little surfing and fishing village.   But despite its appeal and laidback charm, most tourists still seem to congregate around the built-up resorts of nearby Ixtapa and Zihuatanejo.   However we’re not the only ones to appreciate this quiet achiever - famed artists Damien Hirst and Julian Schnabel regularly retreat to Troncones for respite and inspiration. Best for: Beach bums looking to do nothing more than swing in a hammock under a palm tree. Getting there: Colectivo vans run between Zihuatanejo and Troncones every half hour. Otherwise many accommodation providers also offer transport services from the airport at Zihuatanejo/Ixtapa.  
Galapagos island fauna flora sights travel adventure
Take a boat trip through the Galapagos Islands
Leave the bucket-list brigade far behind on a boat trip through the mesmerising Galapagos Islands. They’re here. But then, I knew they would be. There’s your number one problem with a bucket-list destination, right there: bucket-list travellers. They’re like moths to a flame.   They’re crowding me now at San Cristobal airport, their cameras knocking me in my solar plexus, hydration hoses dangling from their brand-spanking-new Kathmandu backpacks, flicking my arms like hungry mosquitoes. They’re a water-resistant, lightweight Gore-Tex army. [caption id="attachment_36591" align="alignleft" width="1000"] The jagged volcanic landscape of the Galapagos.[/caption] They talk loudly too, but then there’s so much to tell. Anticipation is heavy in the air, like humidity. After all, just on the other side of the immigration man with the Inspector Clouseau moustache, there’s a world of crazy-looking animals created, surely, with Instagram in mind.   A flotilla of tourist boats – more than half the visitors to the Galapagos will travel by boat at some stage of their journey – will ensure cyberspace records another bucket-list inclusion being ticked efficiently off the list. Done! [caption id="attachment_36592" align="alignleft" width="1000"] The dazziling water of Bartolome Island, Galapagos.[/caption] What’s next? Machu Picchu?   But this is not my first rodeo. Bucket-list destinations, I’ve discovered through trial and error, must be approached with a very carefully planned strategy. You want them to live up to all the hype, don’t you? Who wants to be a witness to a deity worshipped half to death?   If the only way to see the Galapagos is by boat, then why not get a boat which carries the least amount of people with the most style (the newest and the fanciest vessel would be nice)? And why not get a boat that’ll take you on a route through the Galapagos Islands that differs from the norm, to bypass all the gawkers? [caption id="attachment_36590" align="alignleft" width="1000"] Sally Lightfoot Crab on the Bartolome Island in the Galapagos.[/caption] That’s precisely why I’m stepping aboard a Zodiac in San Cristobal’s tiny harbour, just 10 minutes’ drive from the airport. It’s taking me to the MV Origin, a shiny blue ship furthest from the shore that offers up space for just 20 guests (with 14 crew). There’s a bar on the top sundeck, a bubbling jacuzzi on the back deck and floor-to-ceiling windows in my cabin so, even when I’m reclining, there’s not a chance I’ll miss a single creature across the whole Galapagos.   The MV Origin offers two routes – I’ve opted for the Southern and Central Galapagos program, which will take me across five islands of the group on a journey of eight days and seven nights. [caption id="attachment_36587" align="alignleft" width="584"] Sea lions bask in Galapagos glory.[/caption] Sea lions are sprawled out on the concrete jetty in the mid-morning sunshine like itinerants sleeping off a big night; on the ride out to the Origin, metre-long frigate birds bombard the blue waters around us hunting fish, and a pod of five dolphins surf the bow waves of our Zodiac like they’re part of the free extras offered, along with the open bar. The sun’s shining high above and the bucket-listers are still at the harbour buying T-shirts with giant tortoises on them and spare memory cards. From my lofty position here on the top deck, with cool towel on forehead and welcoming cocktail in hand, everything looks exactly as it should. [caption id="attachment_36593" align="alignleft" width="1000"] A Galapagos giant tortoise strolls though its day.[/caption] The Galapagos are one of the world’s most romanticised island groups. Ever since Charles Darwin ventured here in 1835 and used his observations of the islands’ extraordinary endemic animals to formulate his theory of evolution (which he based on natural selection of animal and plant species), the Galapagos have been cast as practically mythological. They sit in 45,000 square kilometres of Pacific Ocean straddling the equator, almost 1000 kilometres from the nearest landmass (Ecuador, to which they belong). This kind of isolation once made the Galapagos an ideal hideout for the planet’s most notorious pirates but these days, ironically, it’s what attracts travellers by the planeload: over 180,000 will make it here this year.   And yet, despite these ever-increasing numbers, within hours of stowing away aboard the good ship MV Origin, I feel blissfully lost at sea. As we leave the bustling port of San Cristobal behind us, with its lunar-like volcanic landscape devoid of almost any vegetation at all, not a single boat follows. A warm northerly breeze sweeps across the decks, I scan the horizon and see nothing but sea, and I feel the kind of anticipation only a voyage by sea can bring on. [caption id="attachment_36596" align="alignleft" width="1000"] Mangrove warbler (Setophaga petechia aureola) male, South Plaza, Galapagos Islands[/caption] It still comes as quite a shock, however, when a pod of transient orcas rushes at us as we start our voyage to the island of Española. One moment the sea is as blue as the sky above, the next it’s a mess of black and white, as creatures the width and length of transit buses come right up under the ship, surfacing just beside us. Our guide, naturalist Peter Freire, says that this sort of thing is what we should be ready for here in these islands he was raised on. “I tell photographers, you don’t need the big zooms; here, the animals come closer than you’ve ever seen before.”   As we arrive at Punta Suarez on Española, we step over marine and land iguanas battling over the placenta of a just-born sea lion. Beside them, blue-footed boobies perform the world’s most elaborate courtship ritual. When I snorkel in the afternoon, sea lions somersault over the top of me, and Galapagos and black-tipped reef sharks touch my legs as they fish the waters beside me. Later, as we walk across a barren ridgeline above a stunning white coral beach, great frigates fly right in among our group as they attack the nests of red-footed boobies, trying to steal the fish they caught to feed their young. I feel less an observer and more a part of the lives of these creatures; in fact, in a week, the only creatures that seem bothered by my trespassing at all are the rare pink flamingos I glimpse on the island of Bartolomé. [caption id="attachment_36598" align="alignleft" width="1000"] Swimming brings you even closer to the Galapagos' unafraid sea fauna.[/caption] But while so much is written of the vast numbers of rare creatures that inhabit the Galapagos, far less is known of the islands’ physical attributes. With their stilted vegetation and sharp volcanic landscape, the Galapagos Islands are no clichéd tropical paradise, yet warm blue water laps onto a thousand hidden bays of perfect white-sand beaches where few visitors ever step.   On my second day at sea, I take a paddleboard over the top of rainbow-coloured coral at Gardner Bay as eagle rays and green turtles swim beneath. I paddle to a long beach, where I sit for an hour as reef sharks, turtles and rays pass me by, just a metre or so from the shore. [caption id="attachment_36597" align="alignleft" width="584"] Prickly pear cactus, endemic in the islands.[/caption] Some of the Galapagos’ most famed visitors were less than flattering in their observations of the island group. Darwin himself noted: “The country is compared to what one might expect the cultivated parts of the infernal regions to be”. But I find the harsh outlines of these islands captivating. One afternoon we climb right to the top of a volcanic caldera, and look down across ancient lava flows to an isolated blue-water bay. On another, I stand atop a paddleboard and ride through sea caves created by volcanic eruptions millions of years ago.   I like that we do most of our steaming by night. Each morning I wake to a weird and wonderful new world at anchorage. Small cruises bring on a certain kind of selfishness, and in the Galapagos I think it’s accentuated – when I see another boat, its presence grates on me. I’m really not happy again until they’ve moved on. Even on my own boat I start to crave the sanctity of dawn, when I walk to the sundeck with a cup of tea to watch the stars fade out high above me. Here, I’m free from small talk, with only the creatures of the sea feeding below me for company. And it’s mine, all mine. [caption id="attachment_36599" align="alignleft" width="584"] The rare flamingos of Bartolome.[/caption] While each shore excursion reveals islands of rare creatures, I find myself looking forward more and more each day to returning to the ship. It has become my whole world, and I like the sense of security that comes with shrinking my existence down to these sturdy slabs of timber and fibreglass set on an open ocean. After each dinner, I retreat to the top deck to watch the stars shoot the whole way across the night sky.   Though we have an itinerary, life at sea follows far less rigid timeframes, with activities revolving around the sun rising and setting. We visit quaint fishing townships sprinkled throughout the Galapagos (only 25,000 people live here), but largely, life revolves almost entirely around the moods of the ocean. [caption id="attachment_36586" align="alignleft" width="1000"] A sleepy baby sea lion goes for maximum cuteness.[/caption] And then it’s done, and I’m deposited back to the queues at San Cristobal airport with lungs full of salty air. The window seats are all gone, claimed by the bucket-list brigade, and the flight is delayed two hours from Quito, but I find I care less now about any of that.   In my mind, the wind’s still blowing across the deck and the sun’s still streaming down on my face; and I know the creatures captured on my memory cards aren’t nearly as important as a mind cleansed by the infinity of all that ocean. Details: Galapagos Islands Getting there Fly to the Galapagos Island from Australia with either LATAM or QANTAS, via Santiago. Latin America specialist Chimu Adventures offers a range of Galapagos trips and can also create tailor-made itineraries including international flights from Australia, transfers and trips on the MV Origin. Playing there  The MV Origin runs two seven-night itineraries – the Southern and Central Route, and the Western and Northern Route – departing every Sunday year-round from San Cristobal island. All visitors to the Galapagos must pay a US$100 Galapagos entrance fee, which you can pay on arrival. The US dollar is the official currency of the Galapagos Islands.
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The Cuban capital still appears to be trapped in a ’50s time-warp, but this unique city is slowly finding its way into the 21st century. 1. Plaza de la Catedral Start your day among the Cuban Baroque architecture of this 18th-century square; in fact the most recent in Havana’s old heart. [caption id="attachment_35224" align="alignleft" width="716"] While nothing quite beats Havana, Cuba has plenty of other highlights too.[/caption] Get up early to attend mass in the Catedral de la Habana (7:15am weekdays); a great way to see Havanans start their day. 2. Fortaleza de San Carlos de la Cabaña A huge 18th-century fort built by the Spanish, it became the headquarters of Che Guevara following the revolution.   You’ll also find the Museo de Comandancia del Che here, a good place to start unravelling Che’s fascinating life story. 3. Plaza Vieja Head back to the Old Town to spend a while at the 16th-century Plaza Vieja; Havana at its pastel-hued best.   People-watch with a drink on a second-floor balcony. You’ll pay a little more up here but the view of the square is worth it. 4. Real Fábrica de Tabacos Partagás See how Cuba’s most famous export is made at this old cigar factory. [caption id="attachment_16884" align="alignleft" width="667"] Old Havana also known as ‘Habana Vieja’ has been World Heritage listed with UNESCO since 1982 and with good reason.The crumbling architecture and the scale of these beautiful buildings have to be seen to be believed – and families still routinely live in these palatial apartments.The size of the French doors gives an idea of the ceiling height inside.[/caption] Take a factory tour and you’ll find some 400 workers here who spend 12 hours a day rolling the famous Montecristo and Cohiba cigars. 5. Paseo del Prado Stroll up this tree-lined walkway that runs from the Capitol building up to the Malecón.   It’s filled with street artists, exclusive hotels, theatres and crumbling mansions, plus lots of marble benches to rest on. 6. Malecón Take a walk along this broad seafront esplanade. It’s the best place in the city to see the classic cars that Havana is famous for. Barter with the driver of a ’57 Chevy taxi here to take you around the city for an hour in style. 7. Museo de laRevolución One of Havana’s most opulent buildings is also an important part of Cuba’s post-revolutionary history.It was inaugurated as the Presidential Palace in 1920 and was used by a succession of presidents until dictator Fulgencio Batista was overthrown in 1959.   Following the revolution, the building was used as a government headquarters, and in 1974 it became a museum dedicated to the revolution. [caption id="attachment_19374" align="alignleft" width="1500"] 86. Havana, Cuba[/caption] In 2010, it was designated a National Monument.   Today, visitors can trace the progress of revolution and cast an eye over historical curiosities including the Granma, the 18-metre yacht that carried Fidel Castro, Che and 80 other revolutionaries from exile in Mexico to overthrow Batista.   In contrast to communist ideals, the building’s interiors were decorated by Tiffany & Co. and visitors can explore highlights like the Salón de los Espejos, a replica of the Hall of Mirrors in the Palace of Versailles.  
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