Every week in our “Spotlight on …” feature, we’ll highlight a different country around the world.
Population: 120.3 million
Currency: Mexican peso
Phrase to Know: Donde esta el baño? (Where is the bathroom?)
Fun Fact: Back in 1913 Mexico’s 34th president, Pedro Lascurain, served the world’s presidential shortest term — less than an hour.
We Recommend: Swim with whale sharks in Cancun. These massive but gentle creatures can weigh up to 20 tons.
12 Best Mexico Experiences
Have you been to Mexico? What was your favorite spot?
— written by Sarah Schlichter
It’s that time of year again: Halloween! If you’re like most people in the U.S., you’ve carved jack-o’-lanterns, hung cornstalks and purchased candy in preparation for the adorable costume-clad beggars who will likely be knocking on your door dressed as witches and skeletons and ghosts. That’s the ideal scenario, but you might instead find yourself dealing with scantily clad teenagers who demand goodies and then egg your home when they’re turned away.
If you’re hoping to get out of Dodge for this potentially horrifying holiday, take a peek at how four other countries handle Halloween.
Ireland is considered the birthplace of Halloween, which is based on Samhain, the annual Celtic festival that acknowledged dead walking among the living and marked the end of harvest season. Although Halloween in Ireland is now celebrated in much the same way as it is in the U.S., activities like bonfires and parties are generally front and center, especially for children, who can win small prizes like candy and coins by playing themed games.
In Mexico, locals celebrate Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) over a two-day period that begins on November 1. Festivals, parties, food and themed activities mark the occasion, which coincides with the Catholic religion’s All Saints Day and All Souls Day. Skeletons have become synonymous with the holiday, which celebrates the lives of the departed rather than mourning their deaths.
Learn More About the Day of the Dead
Teng Chieh, China‘s version of Halloween, finds participants lighting lanterns to help guide the spirits of dead relatives, for whom they also leave refreshments. Some locals also choose to make paper boats, which are then burned to release the souls of those who have died but haven’t received proper burial.
If what you actually want to do is escape Halloween altogether, plan a trip to France. Although it becomes more well known there every year, thanks to North American influences, the holiday is still generally obscure and not widely celebrated.
Trick or Travel: The World’s Most Haunted Destinations
— written by Ashley Kosciolek
I admit I have a spooky streak: It’s more curious than morbid, but I find myself touring cemeteries (for the history! And architecture!) and waiting for the day when I can finally pay a visit to the Overlook Hotel — inspiration for “The Shining” (I’m a big Kubrick fan). If this sounds like your idea of fun too, and you are looking to plan your next vacation with an excursion into the paranormal (or an actual stay on location), you may want to investigate the following supposedly haunted sites. All locations were found on a list of the most haunted places in the world, from a U.K. website called Haunted Rooms.
Ancient Ram Inn, Gloucestershire, England
The British Isles have their share of folklore, but the story of this ancient inn is no fairy tale. Built in the 12th century, this building is said to occupy a former pagan burial ground and has been the site of child sacrifices and devil worship. Currently serving as a bed and breakfast, guests report being touched and pulled, hearing voices and feeling an evil presence. Its location at the intersection of two ley lines is said to be a conduit for spiritual activity.
13 Best England Experiences
Castle of Good Hope, Cape Town, South Africa
Supernatural sightings at this 17th-century castle built by the Dutch East India Company include a man repeatedly jumping off a castle wall, and an apparition known as the Lady in Grey who stalked the castle halls crying hysterically. Since a woman’s body was unearthed during a recent excavation, sightings of the Lady have vanished, but ringing bells and the ghost of a black dog are among the curiosities still experienced here.
Banff Springs Hotel, Alberta, Canada
Frighteningly similar to the eerie aura of “The Shining,” this hotel set in the Canadian countryside was built more than 125 years ago and has been the stage for several strange encounters. As in the cult classic film, a family was murdered in one of its rooms, which has been bricked up ever since (but they can still be seen in the hallway). A bride is reported to have fallen down the stairs and broken her neck after her dress caught fire, but a friendlier ghost — a popular bellman from the 60s and 70s — also resides here and still tries to help guests to their rooms, turning on lights and opening doors.
11 Offbeat Things to Do in Canada
Chateau de Brissac, Maine-et-Loire, France
The tallest castle in France is picturesque for sure, but has a dark past. A 15th-century double murder left the home with a specter known as the Green Lady. Story has it that if she looks at you, there are holes where her eyes and nose would be. The current Duke of Brissac and his family reside in the castle to this day and seem unaffected, but guests have reported early-morning moans and sightings of the green ghoul.
A Dozen Things You’ll Find in France
Island of the Dolls, Xochimilco, Mexico
Perhaps the creepiest of all, this lakeside town near Mexico City is not only home to a small and terrifying population of mutilated dolls, but the story behind them is truly chilling. In the 1920s, an accident left a girl drowned. In the 1950s, a recluse named Julian began communicating with the spirit of the young girl and leaving dolls for her on the island. After many years, Julian felt like he could no longer appease her and confessed to his nephew that he felt she would harm him. Later that day he was found face down in the exact location where the girl reportedly drowned. To this day, residents report whisperings from the dolls and wandering eyes.
Lawang Sewu, Semarang, Indonesia
If the name (translation: “thousand doors”) isn’t a bit mysterious as it is, the building was occupied by Japanese forces during WWII and used as a prison, where many were tortured or executed. Believed to be one of the most haunted places in Indonesia, this building (also built by the Dutch East India Company) is said to host multiple ghosts, including a Dutch woman who committed suicide there, headless spirits and a vampiric ghost, or kuntilanak, as it’s known in the region’s folklore.
— written by Brittany Chrusciel
Photo of Ancient Ram Inn used and shared under the following license: Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0. Original photo copyright Flickr user Synwell.
Photo of Island of the Dolls used and shared under the following license: Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0. Original photo copyright Flickr user Esparta Palma.
Today’s post is part of a weekly series called “Travel Toss-Up,” in which we ask you to take your pick between two amazing travel experiences.
This week’s toss-up offers a choice of two unique geological formations.
Would you rather…
… visit an ice cave in Vatnajokull, Iceland, or …
… swim in a cenote in Mexico?
Over the winter months, visitors to southern Iceland can get a one-of-a-kind glimpse of Vatnajokull Glacier by taking a tour of its ice caves with a tour company such as Extreme Iceland or LocalGuide.is. Cenotes — sinkholes where groundwater has been exposed — are common in the Yucatan Peninsula of Mexico; pictured above is one of the most popular, Ik-Kil, located in Chichen Itza.
Photos: 9 Places You Haven’t Been — But Should
Vote for your preference in the comments below!
— written by Sarah Schlichter
Not every destination makes a stellar first impression. Misunderstandings happen, plans fall through, expectations are dashed. And nowhere in recent memory did I find that truer than in Cabo San Lucas.
I had high hopes before I arrived in this happening resort town on the Mexican Riviera. As a celebrity magazine addict, I knew that Cabo was considered the perfect spot for A-listers to blow off steam: Justin Timberlake plays golf there, George Clooney celebrates birthdays, the Kardashians do what Kardashians do. Jennifer Aniston comes so often that she might as well be on the tourist brochure.
But I forgot that they don’t go where I went, which, unfortunately, was straight to Medano Beach. I knew from the moment I arrived at a popular beachfront restaurant there that I had chosen … poorly.
I ordered a margarita, singular. Little did I know this was an impossible request in Cabo. A waiter arrived bearing two aquarium-sized glasses. “No, no, just one,” I told him nicely.
“No, lady. Two is better!” he replied. We went back and forth over my request for a while, until he finally took the unsolicited beverage away. (At that point, I was so irritated by his persistent upselling that I almost needed the second drink.)
That wasn’t the end to the Medano madness. Within a few hours, I was hassled by timeshare salesmen, encouraged to smile by water taxi drivers and offered illegal drugs. I saw more ugly tattoos than on an episode of “Jersey Shore,” and it wasn’t even spring break. The last straw came when I slipped on one of Cabo’s steeper streets, landing firmly on my rear.
“I hate Cabo,” I texted to my husband.
Luckily, I had time for a do-over; subsequent days there exposed me to the city’s first-class adventure opportunities, including kayaking and snorkeling with Baja Outback, parasailing with Cabo Expeditions and a camel safari with Cabo Adventures (yes, camels! It’s become the company’s number one excursion). I even found some great places to go on Medano to escape the nuttiness free-for-all, including Nikki Beach (for those who like Miami style) and Tabasco Beach (for those who like feet-in-the-sand style). I have a list of things to do if and when I come back, including visits to San Jose del Cabo and Todos Santos and a deep-water fishing excursion.
Learn More About Mexico
But the experience made me think about the best ways to handle a new destination if it isn’t exactly what you expected:
Switch gears: The best thing I could have done after the margarita skirmish was hightail it out of Medano on a water taxi to the Marina, a less pushy part of the city. If you’re in a neighborhood that’s rubbing you the wrong way, try another one — stat.
Blow off steam: Zip-lining wasn’t what you expected? Don’t stomp back to the hotel angrily. If time allows, walk around, do some shopping or enjoy a snack at an establishment that looks more your speed. Being able to calm down and look at the situation with some distance will usually turn it into an amusing memory rather than a trip-wrecking horror.
Conduct a post-mortem, part I: That night, make the effort to talk to a few fellow travelers, either at your hotel or a local bar. What have they done that you haven’t? Swapping stories means you can unearth valuable intel that may allow you to make out better the next day.
Conduct a post-mortem, part II: Once you’re home, go online and see if others have had your experience. (Our forums are a great place to chat with other travelers.) Did they have the same issues you did, or did you just happen to catch that attraction or neighborhood on a bad day? Keep in mind that factors like weather, local strikes and staff turnover can vary the experience significantly.
When Destinations Disappoint
Maybe it’s you. We all have bad days. Maybe you’re not feeling well, or maybe your travel companions are working your last nerve. If you set out for the day with a monster chip on your shoulder, don’t be surprised if the slightest thing knocks it off — and really, who’s to blame for that but yourself?
Tell us! How have you salvaged a poor experience in a new destination?
— written by Chris Gray Faust
Yes, we’re seasoned world travelers, but that doesn’t mean we aren’t occasionally enamored with kitschy roadside attractions. Be they weird landmarks, supernatural places, wonky museums or crazy theme parks, there are lots of curiosities that appeal to our roving sense of wonder.
Take, for instance, this sampling of some of the oddest homes we’ve found, both in the United States and abroad. Perhaps you’ll feel like making a pit stop on your next journey.
Beer Can House: Houston, TX
Former owner John Milkovisch began inlaying rocks, marbles and aluminum on his front and back yards in 1968 after claiming he was tired of taking care of the lawn. Aluminum roofing and siding followed over an 18-year period. The strangest part? The aluminum is all made of beer cans — including the beer-can-lid garland that hangs from the roof. It gets a bit noisy when the wind blows, but the material evidently cuts down on energy costs. After Milkovisch’s death in 1988, the Orange Show Center for Visionary Art took it on as a restoration project, and it’s open to visitors on weekend afternoons.
Nautilus House: Mexico City, Mexico
A couple in Mexico City hired an architect to aid them in building themselves a home — a home that just happens to look like a giant seashell. Complete with a giant stained-glass window and several other porthole-like openings, the home is bit reminiscent of Alice in Wonderland, boasting tiny vegetation-lined paths that wend between rooms, all of which are furnished with cartoonish furniture that’s fit for a hobbit.
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Whimzeyland: Safety Harbor, FL
This home, purchased in 1985 as a plain-looking dwelling by current occupants (and artists) Todd Ramquist and Kiaralinda, is cheerfully decorated with bright colors and knickknacks galore. Among bottle trees and other whimsical found objects are the dozens of bowling balls that can be seen throughout the grounds’ landscaping. Years ago, the pair obtained bowling balls for free at a local flea market and used them to liven up the place, painting more dismally colored ones for an even more happy effect.
Upside-Down House: Szymbark, Poland
At this dizzying property, visitors can walk around inside the structure’s upside-down rooms, which allegedly mess with the equilibria of many. Designed by Daniel Czapiewski to represent the fall of communism, it was reportedly cumbersome for builders to complete, due to the topsy-turvy nature of, well, just about everything. Bonus: If you turn your camera upside down before snapping a selfie, it’ll look like you’re hanging from the ceiling.
Winchester Mystery House: San Jose, CA
Built by Sarah Winchester, the wife of William Wirt Winchester (as in Winchester rifles), the mansion cost $5.5 million to build and contains 160 rooms. Construction went on for years as Sarah claimed she needed to accommodate the spirits of those who died at the hands of the guns her husband helped to produce. It’s now a major tourist attraction that features a museum, a restaurant and expensive tours. Hours vary seasonally.
Photos That’ll Make You Want to Get Up and Go
Which of these crazy houses would you most want to visit? Share your thoughts in the comments below.
— written by Ashley Kosciolek
Each month, we’ll highlight one new trip review submitted by an IndependentTraveler.com reader. If your review is featured, you’ll win an IndependentTraveler.com logo item!
In this month’s featured review, reader vagabondginger shares the highlights of a seven-day trip through the Copper Canyon region of Mexico. “We boarded the El Chepe train in El Fuerte to the Posada Barrancas stop, winding through tunnels and across bridges,” wrote vagabondginger. “It goes from sea level to 8,000 feet in 150 miles. Barranca del Cobre or The Copper Canyon is actually several canyons and its gigantic gorges are larger and deeper than the Grand Canyon, but it is different as it is more verdant.”
Read the rest of vagabondginger’s review here: Copper Canyon Trip Nov 23-29, 2013. Vagabondginger has won an IndependentTraveler.com duffel bag!
Feeling inspired? Write your own trip review!
— written by Dori Saltzman
Suffering from the Monday doldrums? For everyone out there facing the beginning of another work week, here’s a little jolt of wanderlust to brighten up your morning. Each Monday, we offer a photo of a spectacular place to spark ideas for your future travels.
This week’s shot captures colorful hammocks for sale at a market in Mexico.
Traveling During Mexico’s Independence Day
Send us your best travel shot! E-mail your most beautiful or captivating travel photo to email@example.com. (Please put Monday Inspiration in the subject line.)
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— written by Sarah Schlichter
Imagine how many insights travelers to the United States would glean about the American character if they visited during our Independence Day celebrations on July 4.
They’d pick up some of our essential values, such as patriotism (flying of flags), love for family and community (reunions, BBQs, hometown parades), distrust for institutional authority (setting off fireworks, both legal and illegal) and occasional stupidity (ER visits because of the aforementioned fireworks). Not to mention all of those sales (pursuit of happiness?).
Of course, we’re not the only country that celebrates an Independence Day. So when I found out that I’d be traveling in Mexico over its holiday (held on September 16 — not Cinco de Mayo as many people think), I saw it as a chance to dive a bit deeper into our southern neighbor’s national psyche.
My trip to Merida, a colonial city in Yucatan that’s popular with expats, also reminded me that visiting countries during their holidays can require a few schedule (and attitude) adjustments. Here are some tips I picked up.
Read up. Before you go, it helps to learn about the country’s history. A bit of research taught me that Mexico’s struggle for freedom from Spain was just as arduous — if not more so — as our break with Britain. For one thing, the war lasted 11 years, from 1810 to 1821, compared to our eight. And Spain had been in control of the colony since 1521, establishing dominance for nearly 300 years (talk about fighting the power).
The centerpiece of Mexican Independence Day is called the Grito de Dolores, a symbolic re-creation of the beginning of the revolution. It’s broadcast nationwide from Dolores, the small town in central Mexico where it all began. On the night of September 15, crowds gather in city public squares throughout Mexico to ring bells and watch fireworks. Having a little knowledge about the first Grito, issued as a call to arms by a Roman Catholic priest named Miguel Hidalgo y Costilla, made the event more special for me.
The Best 9 Cities to See Cool Public Art
Expect crowds — and closures. I arrived in Cancun on September 14, the Saturday before the holiday. The airport was even more packed than usual, with Mexicans arriving from overseas to celebrate the holiday at home or taking advantage of the three-day weekend to go on short trips outside the country.
Once I arrived in Merida, I learned that some attractions I’d planned on visiting, such as the Noche Mexicana, a folk festival usually held on Saturday evenings, would not be taking place. Some roads were also closed to through traffic, which meant taking a cab to the Plaza Grande was out of the question (luckily, it was a short walk from my hotel).
Tip generously. Not everyone has Independence Day off, of course. Because of the increased crowds, the day was business as usual — and then some — for people who work in the hospitality industry. If you know that you are keeping your driver, tour operator or server from being with their families on their national holiday, it’s a nice gesture to make your tip a little more special. After all, wouldn’t you want visitors to the States to do the same?
Take part. After checking with my concierge to make sure it was safe, I headed out to the Independence Day festivities around 10 p.m. Sunday night. The streets were packed with revelers, mostly families, and the restaurants on the Plaza Grande were full. After grabbing a mango sherbet at Sorbeteria Colon, which has been serving sweet treats since 1907, I positioned myself on a bench to people watch (the giggling teenagers with the fake moustaches — a tribute to the bushy revolutionaries — were particularly entertaining).
I didn’t have long to wait. After the Grito at 11 p.m., the crowd erupted into cheers. “Vivan los heroes que nos dieron patria!” the chant started, before naming some of the country’s founding fathers. “Viva nuestra independencia! Viva Mexico! Viva!“
At the end of the third “Viva Mexico,” fireworks shot into the sky. The national anthem started to play, and the people around me started singing. I found myself moved by their obvious love for their country, and realized that patriotism — as opposed to its more sinister cousin, nationalism — is a beautiful thing to watch, regardless of your passport.
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— written by Chris Gray Faust
Every Tuesday, we’ll feature the best travel bargain we’ve seen all week right here, on our blog. Be the first to find out which deals make the cut by subscribing to our blog or signing up for our weekly deals newsletter.
The Deal: After all the cooking, wrapping and relatives, you might be seeking a soothing kind of post-holiday vacation. Our advice? Relax and say “Spaah” at Le Blanc, an all-inclusive luxury resort in Mexico, and enjoy $1,500 worth of dinners, spa treatments, games of golf and more — for free.
Cancun’s Le Blanc Spa Resort is offering up to $1,500 in resort credit with stays of five to eight nights through December 2012. Stay four nights and receive $750 in resort credit, or stay three nights and receive $500 in resort credit. You can use the credit toward a long list of special perks that aren’t covered by the resort’s all-inclusive rates, like a dolphin swim excursion, spa treatments, a romantic lobster dinner on the beach, room upgrades, Champagne and wine, and even wedding packages.
If destination nuptials aren’t on your 2012 to-do list, you can still enjoy the much-lauded service and plush accommodations at LeBlanc. The resort is ranked number one out of 169 Cancun hotels on our sister site TripAdvisor, and it was even selected as one of TripAdvisor’s 2011 Travelers’ Choice winners. The adults-only beachfront property features five restaurants, two golf courses, three outdoor pools, and a fitness center that offers yoga and Pilates classes.
The Catch: LeBlanc is an all-inclusive luxury resort, which means it’s not exactly the best place to go for a bargain-basement vacation. The lowest rates we found came to $296 per person, per night for an autumn stay. Prices are more expensive in winter and early spring.
The Competition: JW Marriott, Renaissance and Marriott Resorts are offering $100 in resort credit plus a free companion ticket with their “Stay Here, Fly There” promotion. This deal isn’t valid in Mexico, but you can snag the offer at select properties in other balmy beach destinations like Florida, California, Texas and Hawaii.
Find these bargains and more money-saving offers in our Hotel Deals.
— written by Caroline Costello