All posts by Shawn Blankinship

I'm a professional backpacker who enjoys meeting new people, exeriencing new places, and blogging about it! Cheers!

Cayes of Belize

Belize port of entry – San Pedro on the beautiful Ambergris Caye. My hostel was right across the street from the beach and was a great place to relax, meet cool people, and drink the free rum punch! Most alcohol is relatively expensive on this island, but the rum is cheap and very good! Enter the Caribbean!

It was easy to get here from Chetumal, Mexico, via a 1.5 hour ferry that runs every day. Customs was simple (as a Canadian), and I was able to enjoy the local language of English, albeit mixed with some creole.

In addition to chilling on the beach and laying in a hammock, I made two great dives from San Pedro. I swam with nurse sharks and sting rays, and meandered through some underwater canyons. Some highlights include beautiful coral, fish, eagle rays, barracudas, and a moray eel!

From San Pedro I took a ferry to the nearby Caye Caulker, which is much smaller and less developed. The laid back vibe was great, and afforded amazing swimming, snorkeling, diving, and kayaking. If you make it here, rent a kayak near the split for $5US for 3 hours, and head for the area with “No Fishing” signs. You’ll see a vast array of fish and sea horses. I also did a day of diving near the Spanish Bay, an underwater wall with coral, sea turtles, and plenty of fish.

My time in Belize has been a blast. Now I catch a ferry to Belize City and take a bus to Flores, Guatemala!

Cheers, Shawn

Tulum – City of Dawn

I think Tulum would have been the best Mayan city to live in. The location is stunning with picture-perfect beaches, warm weather, and an abundance of rich lands and fresh water from nearby cenotes (see my last post for more info about cenotes).

There are several temples with beautiful engravings, and a central palace where the key Mayan official would reside. Quite a cushy posting! The area surrounding the ruins are also gorgeous – the tropical jungle and some of the best beaches on the planet! If you visit Tulum, you can walk to the public beach in about 10 minutes. I headed out there to swim and work on my tan!

I had a nice lazy day, and went for a walk back to town. After visiting with some Aussie friends at the hostel, I thought I’d work on the blog! Hope you enjoy!

Cheers, Shawn

Chichen Itza and Cenotes!

From Tulum I made a day trip to the spectacular Mayan temple complex of Chichen Itza! This used to be a key political and religous centre for the Mayans that dates back to the year 800. The main temple of El Castillo is over 1,000 years old!

It’s fascinating how the Mayans combined the religious, economic, and day-to-day life together so smoothly. In this site you can visit sacred religious temples, palaces, ball courts, and much more. I admit that the tourist traffic does detract slightly from the ambiance, but its popularity is well-earned.

You will notice in the photos a circular loop-type fixture in the Mayan ball court. Two teams would play, and would win by hitting a small ball through this circular goal net that was high above the ground. The ball could only be hit in by elbows, hips, or knees. At certain times there would be sacred games, and the captain of the winning team would be sacrificed to the gods!

On the way to Chichen Itza, we made a stop to Ik Kil Cenote. Cenotes are natural sinkholes that exposes underground aquifers. The water is fresh and was used by the Mayans for fresh water, and in some sites for religious ceremonies. The Ik Kil Cenote is over 40 meters deep and 60 meters in diameter! Make sure you don’t have any rocks in your pockets when you go in!

I had a great day of Mayan excursions. Next I’ll check out the ruins and beaches in Tulum. What a hard life!

Cheers, Shawn

Cancun and Cozumel – Warm Again!

From Europe to North America – my Mexico/Central America journey begins! My 12 hour flight from Frankfurt to Cancun went very smoothly. I arrived to my hostel in Cancun, Mezcal Hostel, and was greeted by a new set of international friends – and three bottles of tequila! It’s not called Mezcal Hostel for nothing!

One of the days I wandered down to Playa Delfines, a gorgeous beach just south of Cancun. There’s plenty of space to relax, take in the views, and go for a swim. However, as the waves were becoming rather aggressive, we were all whistled by the lifeguard back to shore.

From Cancun I took a bus and ferry to the diving paradise of Cozumel. I got in 1 day of snorkeling, and 2 days of diving. The reefs around here are teeming with all kinds life, including fish, turtles, barracuda, and much more. Highlights include swimming through an underwater cave system, and riding an underwater current. This way you see all kinds of things and don’t even have to swim!

My next stop will be Tulum, where I will check out the Mayan Ruins on the ocean, and the temple complex of Chichen Itza!

Cheers, Shawn


Xi’an – Tombs and Holy Mountains

Xi’an is a city northwest of Shanghai, and is close to the world-famous Terracotta Army. This massive tomb for the first Qin Emperor houses over 8,000 terracotta soldiers, horses, cavalry, and chariots. It is such a massive complex that areas are still being excavated. It’s a real wonder to see.

We made another day trip from Xi’an to Huashan Mountain. This is considered a holy mountain, and has several temples/shrines that can be visited. You ride a gondola to the top that affords some breathtaking views. Once at the top, there are numerous hiking trails, glass bridges, and mini-gondolas to explore. It would be worth spending 2 days here to visit all the areas, but we had to catch the bus back to the city. Maybe next time!

From Xi’an we catch a bullet train to the capital – Beijing!


Photos by Jon Lang

Asia Trip – Early 2016

Shanghai – Metropolis of the East

Shanghai is a bustling and modern city with gorgeous cityscapes, parks, and museums. For some reason I thought it was going to be less developed and unpleasant – but I was wrong. The city is clean, easy to get around, and has lot of cool sights!

The famous cityscape of Shanghai, the Bund, is gorgeous at nighttime. Another place not to miss is the Shanghai Museum. There are artifacts and artwork from the many Chinese dynasties. My favorite collections are the ceramics and jade. So cool!

There are many very nice parks in the city to chill and relax. At one of the main parks in Shanghai you can visit the Shanghai Marriage Market. This is where the parents of unmarried children go and try to find prospects for their kids. It’s quite fascinating – you can see photos and stats such as height, occupation, age, etc. It’s like an online dating profile filled out by your parents. You’ll see one photo of this below.

One recommendation for food – all over the city you will find self-serve soup restaurants. You get a bowl and add whatever you want: meats, veggies, noodles, spices, etc. You then give it to the kitchen staff and they prepare it for you. It is extremely tasty and quite cheap. Watch out though, one time I thought I’d selected pork, but it ended up being stomach. Haha, live and learn!

I really enjoyed my time in Shanghai. Now off northwest to Xi’an and the Terracotta Warriors!

Cheers, Shawn

Photos by Jon Lang

Asia Trip – Early 2016

P.S. – In the last post I mentioned that we were going to take a 20 hour train ride to Shanghai. This ride went very well, and was quite comfortable. We had a sleeper, which is a bunk bed stacked 3 high. Each compartment had 2 sets of bunk beds, so there were 6 of us. Jon and I shared it with a local family, who were quite curious about who we were. Even though we couldn’t converse due to the language difference, they were very friendly and good travel companions. We had a good night’s rest, and were well fed with the food cart that went by every couple of hours during the daytime. Even though it was long, the train experience was very good!

Farewell Europe

Frankfurt is my last stop in Europe as I catch a 12 hour flight to Cancun tomorrow. In this 1.5 month trip, I’ve visited England, Belgium, Italy, Switzerland, Austria, and Germany. So many beautiful places, fun people, and good times.

I will now spend 3 months in Mexico and Central America. I start in Cancun, and will finish in Panama City on February 15. As I’ve had snow here in Germany and Austria, I am looking forward to the warm weather, nice beaches, and outdoor adventures! It’ll be good times!

I’ve enjoyed my last days here in Frankfurt, and checked out the historic Romer with beautiful buildings and plaza. There is a lot of work going on now to prepare the Christmas Market. You’ll notice this in some of the photos. Another very interesting stop is the Staedel Museum – it has a vast collection of contemporary, modern, and ancient art. If you like art, this is a must!

Cheers to all my European friends. If you want to visit Canada and check out the Northern Lights (after February), give me a shout!

Cheers, Shawn

Zhangjiajie – Out of This World!

Zhangjiajie and Mt. Tianmen are some of the most stunning places in my travels so far – and that’s saying something! I’d read about them, but actually being here is jaw-dropping.

The city of Zhangjiajie is an 8 hour drive north of Guilin, but we took a short flight. Near the city is Zhangjiajie National Forest Park. This is where many of the stunning photos are from. The landscapes include hundreds of high and skinny pillar-like formations as far as you can see! This is actually the area where the movie Avatar was filmed. When you see this place, it’s almost seems too amazing to be real!

Getting around this park is really easy, as you can ride elevators, gondolas, or shuttles. We even stayed overnight in the park at a hostel. I recommend staying at least 2 days in the park, and 3 if you have time. After the park we headed back to the city for a night. We then checked out a nearby mountain, Tianmen Mountain. The road going out to the mountain is unbelievable. The only road that compares is the Transfagarasan road in Romania. Check out the photo below. Once you get up to the mountain, you then take an escalator THROUGH the mountain. Yes, they actually drilled through the mountain and built a massive escalator! The engineering here is amazing.

Once you get near the top, you can take a stroll on a glass bridge bolted to the side of the mountain. They even give you slippers to put over your shoes – everyone looks so tidy! You can check out the Buddhist Tianmenshan Temple near the top that was built over 1100 years ago.

Zhangjiajie is an absolute must for anyone travelling to China. While a little out-of-the-way, you can catch planes or trains to get out here. Our next stop is Shanghai – a solid 20 hour train ride away!

Cheers, Shawn

Photos by Jon Lang

Asia Trip – Early 2016

Guilin and Yangshuo – Gorgeous

With our visa in hand, it was easy to travel from Hong Kong across the mainland Chinese border to Shenzhen, a city right next to Hong Kong. When we got to the immigration desk, the officer looked at us and gave someone a phone call… our hearts started beating. Luckily there was no problem and we were able to catch our train to Guilin.

If you travel in China, know that the train system is awesome! The network is massive and has state of the art bullet trains that go over 300km/hr. You can use an app called C-Trips, where you can buy all the train and plane tickets that you need. It is in English and is easy to use.

We arrived to Guilin, and were surprised to find out that the city has over 4.7 million people! The maps and books made it look like a small city… I guess for China it is! It was fun wandering around and checking out the different neighbourhoods. There aren’t very many foreigners here, so we definitely got some stares. With a wave those stares soon turned into smiles!

From Guilin we took a boat ride down the Li River to the stunning town of Yangshuo. This area is surrounded by steep/narrow mountains, and provides some great views. A local told us about a hiking trail up to a communications tower. After a good hour of climbing steps and steep trails, we had an ample reward. Check out the photos!

The next day we decided to go freestyle hiking throughout the countryside. We came across several little villages and farms. At one point we had our tablets open trying to figure out where we were, and a local farmer came up to us and asked us where we wanted to go. Note this was all done through charades. We pointed on the map that we wanted to follow the river, and he showed us a good path through his farm to reach the river.

After following the river for an hour or so, we came to the end of the trail. Unfortunately we wanted to keep going, but the steps were washed out. We back-tracked and bartered with a fisherman/merchant for a ride to our destination.

It was a good adventure, but we were really hungry! We stopped by a little restaurant and found a menu with good pictures! Our Mandarin is nil, and ditto for our hosts’ English. We ordered a ridiculous amount of food – a massive fish, chicken, duck, pork, and rice. Our hosts watched in amazement as we gobbled down everything. It was so good!

The fish was really fresh. In fact, it was swimming in a tank just outside of the restaurant. A guy on a moto drives by each day and delivers the fish right to the tank! After we sat down at the restaurant, our host grabbed a fish and showed it to us. Needless to say it passed inspection!

Another quirky thing about many restaurants here is the cutlery and dishes. They come pre-wrapped in plastic and are set out on the tables. I think that the dirty dishes/cutlery are collected by a company at the end of the day, and they clean, re-package, and deliver them the next day. Pretty efficient!

A few general tips about travelling in mainland China:

  • Google is blocked. No Google search, no Gmail, no Google Maps, no Playstore. Be sure to have some other email account, map app, and any other apps that you need BEFORE entering mainland China. All of this was accessible in Hong Kong when we were there, but once crossing the mainland Chinese border, it is blocked. I’ve never seen such an effective firewall… best to be prepared
  • There is very little or no English in many places. Try to find a hostel/hotel where there are English speakers. Check out the property description and reviews – it will usually say. This is very helpful as you can get good local travel tips, and have someone write down your hostel or destination in Mandarin, and you can show this to a bus driver or cab driver. This is more valuable than you can imagine!
  • Prior to going to China, buy a good travel book. This can provide useful information for sights and destinations. Make sure that the book includes the Chinese names of things in case you need to ask someone for directions.
  • Most tour agencies are for local Chinese, not foreigners. Agents often don’t speak English, and you will be on a big bus with Chinese tourists. I recommend asking for info at your hotel/hostel if there’s an English speaker there
  • Obviously, be respectful of the local traditions and customs. Also, as government control is quite tight, don’t say anything negative about the government or its policies.
  • Other than that, enjoy this beautiful country!

There’s a lot more to check out in China, so stay tuned!

Cheers, Shawn

Photos by Jon Lang

Asia Trip – Early 2016

Salzburg – Salt Fortress!

Salzburg, Austria – what a fantastic town! You have a medieval fortress up on the hill, a picturesque river flowing by, hills to wander around, and the Alps in the background! What more could you ask for?

It’s nice to visit a smaller town and just wander around. The old town here is very beautiful, and is right next to the medieval Hohensalzburg Castle. It’s positioned on a high hill that towers over the town. The archbishop of Salzburg used to rule here until it became a part of Austria in 1805.

While meandering through the town, you can check out a large array of sights, including: churches, convents, monasteries, a palace, towers, etc. The Kapuzinerberg is a hill right next to Salzburg, where a Capuchin monastery is built. It’s a great area to hike and contemplate. You can even grab a beer once you reach the top at the restaurant. Well earned I say!

I couldn’t help but notice a bunch of political posters around the town. In December Austria will be having a presidential election. The two main contenders are: 1) a fairly moderate/liberal candidate who has affiliations with the Green Party, and 2) a “far right-wing” candidate who has taken a firm stand for Austrian independence and against immigration. Reminds me of another recent election. I wonder what direction Europe will take in the next few years… should be interesting.

I only have one more stop in Europe. Off to Frankfurt, and then west to Mexico!

Cheers, Shawn

P.S. You may wonder about the title – Salt Fortress. Back in the day salt was very important for food preservation, and the area around Salzburg had plenty of natural salt reserves. Given that the town has quite an impressive fortress, they named the town Salz (salt) burg (fortress). A good bit of trivia, eh?