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Latin America

Conveniently picturesque – a getaway to Uruguay’s Colonia del Sacramento

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Sitting at a table at ‘El Drugstore’, a popular restaurant in the historic center of Colonia del Sacramento, sipping a medio-y-medio while looking out at the Basilica del Santisimo Sacramento, I felt at ease for the first time since our attempted robbery in Montevideo. It might have been the mix of moscato grapes and pinot blanc sparkling which mix to make Uruguay’s special wine, or the passionate singer who entertained the guests with Spanish love songs. The scene felt like out of a movie, the manicured town square just a little bit too perfect.

Colonia del Sacramento Medio y Medio and churchWe booked four days here despite being warned that Colonia could be ‘done in a day’. Catching up with work and relaxing in the picturesque little town was exactly what we needed.

Picturesque Colonia 

Colonia del Sacramento is a former Portuguese colony founded in 1680 that has become a long weekend playground for residents of Buenos Aires, the reasons for which, however, are not purely touristic in nature.

Colonia del sacramento uruguayColonia is a charming, compact UNESCO World Heritage site that really could be visited in a single day, a soothing contrast to the sprawling Argentine capital that sits just a 50-minute ferry ride across the Rio de la Plata river. Here tourists from around the world step carefully along original and very rocky cobblestone streets lined with one-story colonial buildings filled with cheek-pinchingly cute cafes and restaurants and several modest attractions like the old lighthouse, the country’s oldest church, Iglesia Matriz, the city’s old fort and the 17th century port which juts out into the river.

Colonia del Sacramento UruguayHere you eat ice cream and stroll, and the second day in town you can rent bicycles, scooters or even golf carts to escape out to the beaches just 15 minutes outside the city. We would also recommend riding, driving or carting around the Colonia beyond the historic center, which has an entirely different and much more Uruguayan feel.

Colonia del Sacramento Unesco UruguayWe spent most of our days between sightseeing and working away in the little cafes, such as the Amada, which was probably the prettiest one, and Ganache, which had the best wi-fi… or cake… ok, both.

As was our routine in South America, we hung with the local stray dogs and watched the sun set across the Rio de la Plata.

Colonia del Sacramento Pupppies and sunsets

Money, money, money: Convenient Colonia 

Although it is truly picturesque, Colonia’s popularity might have slightly less to do with an influx of international tourists and more to do with residents of neighboring Argentina, in particular Buenos Aires, who flock here for entirely practical purposes.

Argentina is again suffering bouts of extreme inflation, devaluing the peso. There is no access to US dollars from banks anywhere in Argentina, which means that while parents hand out ice cream and climb to the top of the lighthouse with their kids, they are there to endure the long lines that wrap around the block to withdraw large sums of US dollars from Uruguayan banks. Both parents and business people are involved in bringing massive amounts of dollars back into Argentina, either to save under their mattresses or exchange on the blue market.

Colonia del Sacramento UruguayColonia is also a practical escape for the Buenos Aires expat community, who make quick weekend trips here every three months when their visas expire. North American and European expats hop across the Rio de la Plata and upon their return, have a fresh new three-month tourist visa to continue living in Argentina without having to apply for any sort of official residency.

Our tip: How to best stock up on $US dollars in Colonia del Sacramento

For people who are traveling from Uruguay to Argentina, you will need to stock up on US Dollars, too, as you will save hundreds, even thousands of dollars by exchanging them on the blue market for pesos while in the country. Our advice is to entirely avoid the massive ATM lines in the barrio historico and venture out beyond the cobblestone into the ‘real’ Colonia. There are plenty of little details to discover and the further out you go, the shorter the lines at the ATM (we never waited more than five minutes near our hotel). You can also bring your passport and withdraw $$ with a teller inside the bank in order to avoid paying any ATM fees as well.

Colonia del Sacramento UruguayNo matter what your purpose of your trip is to Colonia del Sacramento, do your hotel research, book at least a week in advance if you can and stay for a few nights to really soak in this charming city and the surrounding sleepy countryside and secluded beaches.

Colonia del sacramento uruguay

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Explore Costa Rica’s Natural Wonders

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Internationally renowned for its commitment to eco-tourism, Costa Rica is a true Central American paradise and one of our favorite travel destinations. With the exception of hardcore urbanites, Costa Rica has something to satisfy just about every kind of traveler. Over the years we have covered several such Tico hotspots, but as we get asked so often about this, we thought this destination guide of some top adventure picks could help focus outdoor and adventure tourists on the right Costa Rican vacation.

Arenal Volcano

It’s not difficult to see why this volcano is one of Costa Rica’s most-visited attractions. Towering above the lush forests near the little town La Fortuna, Arenal is a perfect example of nature at its most majestic. When the volcano does erupt, the bright orange rivers of lava spurting out the top and streaking down all sides is an unparalleled experience. There is plenty of hiking and trekking to be done in the area, plus waterfalls and incredibly relaxing hot springs to visit. After some long hikes, we soaked our tight muscles for a day at the best in town, the Tabacon Hot Springs resort, and left entirely relaxed.

volcano arenal from mountain paradise hotelCartago

This town just outside of the capital, San Jose, is nestled near the base of the sky-high Irazu Volcano, Visitors can marvel at the teal blue water in the crater, but also from the top you can see both the Atlantic and the Pacific Oceans on a clear day. Cartago itself is most famous for its stunning Basilica de Nuestra Semora de Los Angeles, a massive, ornate church which thousands of pilgrims flock to each year. The church is home to ‘La Negrita’, a black Madonna steeped in folklore and legend.

Tortuga Island

Looking for a something a touch more relaxed? Kick back in the tropical paradise of Tortuga Island. Perched in the Gulf of Nicoya, this archipelago boasts powdery beaches and glittering azure waters. Tortuga Island is also an ideal spot for snorkeling and kayaking. You can easily combine a trip out to Tortuga Island with a Nicoya vacation with stops in Montezuma, Santa Teresa and up to our personal favorite beach, Samara Beach.
Montezuma bay & beach

Manuel Antonio National Park

Combining beach and forest into one breathtaking destination, Manuel Antonio National Park is among Costa Rica’s most beautiful natural wonders. Although this is easily one of the most heavily touristed of Costa Rica’s destinations, there is just something about Manuel Antonio that makes us truly love it here. You can hike through the park’s trails and get up close and personal with monkeys, sloths and iguanas (and some very grabby raccoons!), or simply unwind near the coral-fringed bay, which, despite reminding us of a busy beach on Spain’s Costa del Sol, was still one of the most relaxing spots to hang out for the day.
Monkey friends in Manuel Antonio

Tortuguero National Park

If you prefer jungle to beach, head out to the exotic wonderland of Tortuguero National Park in the Limon province. The biological diversity here is, even by Costa Rican standards, incredible. There are eleven different habitats – beaches, swamps, lagoons, mangroves, etc, with specific wildlife living in each one. Bring a rain jacket (and galoshes, and lots of dry socks). This region gets hit with over 250 inch (640cm) of rain each year! The lush forests, winding rivers, spectacular waterfalls make it so worth it, and you might even see a few green sea turtles wandering the black-sand shores.
Turtle in Costa Rica

Sarapiqui Canopy

An easy day trip from San Jose, Puerto Viejo de Sarapiqui’s tropical rainforest is loaded with ways for a quick wildlife and adventure fix. You can explore the area on a two-hour riverboat trip and watch toucans, monkeys and crocodiles in their natural habitats, and/or catch a few thrills with a specially designed treetop-jumping experience.

Costa Rica is an easy, safe destination to travel through, whether you prefer independent buses or arranging local flights and car hires through companies like American Express Travel. While we always prefer to hit the road and take our chances, American Express travelers are privy to many members-only rewards and perks that make it even easier, and possibly cheaper to explore Costa Rica.

Sunset costa Rica

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Struck by a wave of charm in Valdivia

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During a trip through Chile, odds are that unless you are Chilean or have unlimited time to travel, you probably won’t visit Valdivia.

Why would you?

Although it is the largest city in the south of Chile, it roughly four hours south of tourist-friendly Pucón and the same distance north of Puerto Varas, a popular stop with the South American cruises, and has no major tourist attractions to speak of.

valdivia riverside and fish market
Covered fish market and Valdivia from the river

We love these kinds of cities, the ones that are entirely unconcerned with tourists.

Their beauty is a natural one, no make-up, nothing over the top, out in plain sight for us to discover.

That’s why we fell for places like Valladolid in Mexico (we ask you not to even go there), Kamphaeng Phet (the town that tourism forgot) in Thailand and now Valdivia in Chile. While there is no earth-shattering attraction, it turns out that an event here actually altered the Earth forever.

valdivia streetLet’s back up a bit first. To understand Valdivia, the easiest place to start is by heading straight down to the river at the center of town. Not one river, actually this is where the confluence of three major rivers, the Calle-Calle, the Valdivia and the Cau-Cau.

It was here at the famous outdoor fish market, that, despite the bloody fish guts splattered on the floor, for us Valdivia began to sparkle.

valdivia market fish vendorIt is bursting with gorgeous produce on one side – fresh fruits and vegetables, a variety of colorful tubers, eggs, cheese, big cubes of dark green seaweed and another thick, rubbery type that looks more like animal intestine but is indeed seaweed straight from the area’s river system. Varieties of freshly caught river fish with strangely large teeth, or whiskers and tails stare across the aisle at the vegetarian-friendly section as fishmongers clean them, tossing their guts right onto the floor and then hosing them into the river behind them.

valdivia market algaeHundreds of birds hover and swoop in for this free fishy lunch, competing with six massive sea lions who roar, play fight and flap about lazily on a floating wooden pier just off river bank, both sure that they are the true main attraction.

The sea lions win, flippers down.

sea lion valdiviaAt one point Dani thought a space ship had landed in the market when seeing my eyes so wide with disbelief. The largest of the sea lions had made its way past the metal security gates and flopped right into the market itself. Hundreds of tourists with their cameras suddenly circled (at a safe distance) taking pictures with their phones, cameras, iPods and (annoyingly) iPads.

Dani jumped down right near him, of course, to get her shot, and though the market vendors were obviously used to this beast’s visit, they were amused with Dani’s eagerness to get the shot and kept urging her to touch him. She didn’t, instead letting some of the mongers lure him back into the water by dumping ever more fish guts into the water.

valdivia sea lion attackA stroll along the river brought us to the spot where river tours leave from – right in front of Fucoult’s Pendulum. You’d have to be much smarter than us to understand more than a basic gist, but we gleaned that the swinging of the pendulum proves the earth’s rotation.

In Valdivia, it turns out, this is more relevant than we would have thought.

valdivia submarineWe hopped on a one-hour river tour here (Spanish only) that gives a great outline of the history and industry of the city, but it was here we learned that Valdivia was the most affected city of the 1960 Great Chilean Earthquake, the strongest earthquake ever recorded in history.

Registering a 9.5 on the Richter scale, the quake was so powerful it actually altered the Earth’s axis and shortened the length of every day on Earth by a few milliseconds.

Tsunami waves of over 80ft (25m) battered the Chilean coast and actually devastated a town in Hawaii. Learning this, and that waves as high as 35 ft (10.7m) were recorded over 6,000 miles (10,000km) from the epicenter – as far as Japan – while sitting on a small tour boat was not exactly where we would have chosen to hear of this earth-shattering event.

valdivia riverOur visit was calm and focused on experiencing the everyday life of the city’s residents. The weather was sunny and warm, so hundreds of people were out on the river in kayaks and paddle boats, with more serious rowers speeding up and down it, parallel to the length of the city. While we were there, we ate well in several restaurants with fair, local prices.

In particular we would recommend a stop in at La Ultima Frontera, just a few blocks up and away from the river, for their great priced and delicious lunch specials. For a boozy afternoon break, stop by the very local Cafe Palace, where we had a giant bowl of Patatas Bravas and 2-for-1 pisco sours for a total of $8. There is primary forest to be visited outside of the city and incredible wildlife just across the river, but we were focused on a city getaway in the middle of a month of Patagonian adventure. We spent the afternoons visiting museums, like the contemporary art museum, and stopping in cozy, if nondescript, cafes, noticing each time that if a place offered free Wi-Fi, the internet connection always worked.

Valdivia from modern art museum
Valdivia from the Modern Art Museum across the river

This is how we feel in general with most of Chile. While lacking in the crumbling grandeur (and constant threat of economic disaster) of neighboring Argentina, in Chile everything just works. The economy here is strong and the infrastructure solid. Even in remote areas, roads are paved and internet connections are speedy. There is a sense of order here, throughout the country that we found even in bohemian Valparaiso and seven-million strong Santiago.

In Valdivia, the waves are calm enough again to witness the subtle aspects of charming Chilean life.

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Getting steamy in Arenal, Costa Rica

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During our visit in 2011, we focused on Costa Rica’s beaches, visiting Montezuma, Playa del Coco, Samara, Santa Teresa, Manuel Antonio, Cahuita, Puerto Viejo, Punta Uva, and Manzanillo. Our trip to the Monteverde Cloud Forest was our one trip into the mountains, and yet, not 100kms from Monteverde was La Fortuna and its famous Arenal Volcano. Luckily this time Dani pushed for us to visit the area. What we discovered is that Arenal is a perfect Costa Rican escape.

lake arenal costa ricaWhat you can’t miss: Arenal volcano

Arriving under the cover of night, we had no idea of the massive volcano looming over the town. While sussing out tour options at a local travel agency, a dreaded, bearded Argentine flirting with the tour guide told us that it would be impossible for us to miss Arenal in the morning, and he was not just boasting in front of his girl. He was right. The volcano is the focal point of the area, from the town of La Fortuna across to the national park, and it is the inspiration for the name of nearly every hotel and restaurant in the area.

Costa Rica Volcano Arenal La FortunaThere are complaints that the town of La Fortuna is ‘too touristy’ but it almost has to be. In 1968, after lying dormant for hundreds of years, Arenal unexpectedly exploded and decimated the small town of Tabacón. For years after that first eruption there were several explosions – some major, some minor – that left the volcano glowing red with lava. Although recent years have seen no activity or signs of it, the warning signs around town about the possibility of life-threatening volcanic activity should be taken fairly seriously.

When the girl in the tour agency heard we had a car, she encouraged us to visit the sights in town independently instead of signing up for a tour. Thankful for her tip, we combined a morning hike in the national park at the base of the volcano 15kms outside of town with an afternoon trip to the incredible La Fortuna waterfall. Colorful toucans and other wild birds soared overhead as we descended over 400 steps into a ravine to the base of the massive waterfall. The pounding water was intense, but the resulting river was lazy, cool and perfect for swimming on a hot day. As we were there later in the day it was too chilly, though by the time we clambered back up those 400 steps we would have appreciated a quick swim. The imposing, mystical volcano, the powerful, pounding waterfall and hundreds of shades of green trees flooded us with an overwhelming sense of the natural splendor Costa Rica has to offer more than anywhere we had visited in the country before.

La Fortuna Waterfall in Costa RicaWhat you must not miss: Tabacón Grand Spa Thermal Resort

After a day of hiking and climbing we couldn’t wait to spend the next day relaxing submerged in the steaming hot pools. Because of the geothermal activity of this volcanic region, La Fortuna is rife with options for hot springs, but the absolute best place to experience this is the Tabacón Grand Spa Thermal Resort. Also a five star hotel, Tabacón is consistently listed as one of the best spa properties in the world, and often listed as one of the top ten hot springs in the world. Readers of Travel + Leisure voted is the #4 Hotel Spa in Latin America 2011.

Tabacon Hot Springs Costa RicaThere is no question as to why this is. Tapping into streaming water from the Tabacón river, there are five natural mineral pools ranging from 25-38 degrees Celcius (71-100 F), with a river rushing through the center of the property. Each of the pools and their steamy offshoots along winding pathways are set in lush gardens so that many areas feel semi-private, others downright hidden. The Shangri-La adults only area is incredibly relaxing, with chairs and plush beds spread throughout and meditational music playing just loud enough to hear over the rapids. We dipped in pool after pool and then massaged our shoulders under gorgeous waterfalls looking out at the Costa Rican rainforest, with Blue Morpho butterflies and what look like dinosaurs but are most likely only lizards sunbathe nearby.

Tabacon Hot Springs Spa Costa RicaIn addition to the restaurant, pool area and three bars (one of which is a swim-up bar) is the Grand Spa, the true showcase piece of the Tabacón resort. Clients here have an even higher level of seclusion and connection to nature with open-air treatment rooms set among gardens. Treatments include volcanic mud wraps, coconut skin exfoliation, meditation trails, even a traditional temezcal area where guests can experience an ancient Indian steam treatment process.

No matter how you spend your Spa day, when you get here you will want to stay for a long, long time, so make sure to go ahead and pay the full $95 per person, which gets you unlimited time in the hot springs plus a set lunch and buffet dinner (its $85 for lunch or dinner only, or $65 just for the Hot Springs). Guests of the hotel receive one complimentary Spa treatment, otherwise all Grand Spa activities are charged separately.

Tabacon Hot Springs Spa in Costa RicaTips for traveling to the La Fortuna / Arenal Volcano area

Rent a car

We rented a car and drove over from Samara Beach, meaning we spent the afternoon meandering the road around Lake Arenal, a magical sight that reminded us of the lochs of Scotland more than the primary rainforest that lay just ahead of us.

Once in the La Fortuna area, the town is fairly compact, but sites, restaurants and hotels are spread out along the road, which couldn’t be easier to navigate. Renting the car made the trip to Arenal as easy, comfortable and relaxing as possible. Luckily, we were able to drop off the car near the airport without any additional drop-off fees as well.

Create exactly the trip that you want

Because tourism in this region is well established, visitors here can choose from a full five-star holiday to bare bones basic backpacker hostels and everything in between. For us this meant we were able to travel exactly the way we prefer – choosing to visit sites independently and eating in the many local ‘sodas’, or Costa Rican restaurants, while staying in the excellent four-star Mountain Paradise Lodge and splurging on the spa day at Tabacón. For those looking for a full tour package or budget travelers looking for hostels and other budget travel ideas, this part of Costa Rica offers options for every budget.

Arenal La Fortuna Costa Rica

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Why you need to see Mexico…now

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Surrealist painter Salvador Dali said he couldn’t live in Mexico because it was too surreal for him – a piece of information sure to stir up intrigue in anyone familiar with the artist’s work. But what made him say this? And why should you visit the very place this mind-bending artist couldn’t handle? Read on to find out why a holiday to Mexico could make you glad of the persistence of memory…

Mexico City Street ArtMexico’s weird and wonderful landscapes are one thing you are unlikely to forget once you’ve seen them, and the country’s views could well have inspired Dali’s ‘surreal’ label, with breath-taking mountain ranges, sprawling desserts and tropical rainforests all vying for attention. In fact, the second-largest remaining tropical rainforest in the Americas stretches through Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula, and is home to equally enthralling creatures such as the white-lipped peccary, the tapir, the scarlet macaw, the harpy eagle and the howler monkey. Also, The Nature Conservancy reports that five large cat species live in the lush greenery there.

Tulum ruins But let’s take a step back and look at Mexico’s position on the map, and what this means for the holidaymaker. This stunning country is bordered by the Caribbean Sea, the Gulf of Mexico, the US and Guatemala. While the majority of the Mexican northern and central territories are located at high altitudes, the yearly temperature average doesn’t normally fall below 20 °C, but does reach up to 28°C. In other words, Mexico is nestled in surroundings that make it a diverse and interesting landscape and it enjoys lovely weather that is not unbearably hot.

For those who want a holiday full of fantastic sights and activities, Mexico is perfect. Tourists can go diving to explore part of the world’s second largest coral reef at the Parque Marino Nacional Arrecifes de Cozumel, or snorkel with whale sharks in Cancun. History buffs can enjoy the city’s rich selection of museums or visit the ancient empire of the pre-Hispanic Aztec capital – the ruins of which were found under the Mexico City Metropolitan Cathedral – and see two religious temples, pyramids, serpent carvings, and shrines.

Palenque ruinsIf you want to laze around on a stunning sun-kissed beach, Mexico can deliver the perfect backdrop to your holiday snaps with its 450 different beaches.

Food in Mexico is a vibrant melting pot of different influences from South America, the Caribbean and Africa, but that’s not to say it doesn’t have its own clear identity too. Dishes based on corn and vibrant, spicy foods with tongue-tingling chilli flavours are available in abundance in Mexico, and a new and exciting food experience is always around the corner if you’re prepared to be adventurous!

Mexican Street FoodWithout wishing to argue with one the most famous artists of all time, thanks to it’s beautiful landscape, exciting and colourful food offerings and amazing history, perhaps there’s a better word to describe Mexico.

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Top 5 Beaches to visit in Central America

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If you’ve taken the time to travel in Central America, or even considered settling down and possibly living in Costa Rica or another of the beautiful locations on this strip of land, then you must have already started exploring the beaches in the region. This can take months of travelling. Want the detail on the best beaches to see across Central America? Here are some to try!

San Blas Archipelago, Panama

There are 378 islands in this gorgeous arc, lying off the north coast of Panama. But only 49 are inhabited. Just imagine the endless strips of untouched sand and sea that you’ll find here. The Kuna, the indigenous population here, are friendly people who still enjoy a traditional lifestyle and if you visit the smaller islands in the Archipelago, there`s a chance there may be a member of the Kuna tribe waiting on shore to collect $1 from you, in exchange for all day use of the beach. So if you are ready to travel to your slice of paradise, definitely do it here! Tropical fish, shallow water, local population…you couldn’t ask for anything more.

Starfish PanamaTabyana Beach, Roatan, Honduras

For a more affordable price, you can experience some of the best that Honduras has to offer. Roatan Island varies quite a bit depending on which end you go to – the southern end is mostly rocky volcanic shore, whereas West Bay is gorgeous. Tabyana Beach isn’t totally out of the tourist way, but the sand is still beautifully clean and the sea just as amazing! Cruise ships can even dock nearby for a day, so don`t be surprised if it is slightly more crowded on these days. Otherwise, it’ll be like most of your Central American travelling – long secluded stretches of sand and sea! Taxis are also a great way to visit multiple secluded beaches here. But make sure the taxi stays with you all day – remote means remote, and you’ll be stranded if the driver decides to leave! Haggle for the best price, too, before you set off. Then, enjoy!

Hacienda Baru, Costa Rica

This private Natural Reserve will offer you something unique during your months of Central American travelling. Not just a typical seaside, this Reserve has four different types of forests, amazing wildlife, and guides who will lead you through it all for a great price. Take the bus from San Jose or a plane to Quepos Airport, after which a 20 minute taxi ride will lead you to the entrance of Hacienda Baru. Walk, clamber in the canopy, or enjoy a horseback ride – visits into the Reserve are daily, and will open your eyes to the stunning natural world of Costa Rica!

Costa Rica beachWhale’s Tail Beach, Ballena Marine National Park, Uvita, Costa Rica

If you have spent a few travelling months in the Central American region, chances are you will have discovered this unique National Park, with its beach shaped very much like a whale’s tail. It is slightly less-known than some of Costa Rica’s most popular tourist attractions, so enjoy it before it truly is discovered by the tourist hordes. With some of the most extensive reefs in the Pacific, and frequent whale sightings, this travel destination in Costa Rica is one you won’t forget.

Isla Bastimentos, Bocas del Toro, Panama

Just a 10 minute boat trip from the town of Bocas del Toro, this secluded island has beaches which are just wilderness waiting to be enjoyed. You can venture into the main city of the Old Bank, a West Indian historic town, or head further south to the mangroves of the Parque Nacional Marino Isla Bastimentos. Either way, if you’re travelling for months in Panama, this is somewhere that you won`t want to miss.

Caribbean Sunset

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How much does it cost to travel through Central America?

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Long-term travel is all about the benjamins. Your budget becomes your bible, how much (or little) you spend determines how long you will be able to keep up the lifestyle of constant travel. We have already posted our six-month budget and our 1-year budget, but both of these include time spent either in the U.S. or Europe, which are much more expensive and so don’t adequately reflect the cost of traveling in Central America.

This is why we wanted to write a separate post specifically breaking down the costs of traveling through this region, in order for those planning a trip to have a rough idea of how much traveling through Central America costs.

Overall Budget Breakdown

We spent exactly six months traveling through all Central American countries – Belize, Honduras, Guatemala, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Costa Rica and Panama – spending a total of $10,685.65 for both of us.

That is about $890.47 per person per month, or $30.36 per person per day (for the exact amount of days we were in Central America).

Central America moneyOriginally we had a rough goal in mind to shoot for under $1,000 per person per month, per month, but we ended up spending even less thanks to keeping a close eye on our spending. This number is the average over six months, but there were major differences in how we spent our money in the various countries, so we have also broken it down per country:

Central America travel budget breakdown per country

Belize: $54 per person per day

Belize was by far the most expensive country in Central America, but we enjoyed our time there immensely. We could have spent less here, but couldn’t pass up the adventure ops available like snorkeling and caving, which would have been much more expensive in Europe or North America. Minus the adventure, Belize would have cost around $40 per person per day.

Accommodation: $7.50 – $12.50 per person in a double room average A double room cost $25 on Caye Caulker, but only $15 in San Ignacio.
Transport: A long-distance bus from Belize City to San Ignacio near the Guatemalan border was $3.50, boats between Belize City and Caye Caulker were $10.
Food: $10 per person including beer. Beer $1.50 – $2.50.
Activities: Full day snorkeling tour $40, cave tours between $45 and $70 per person.

Belize snorkeling

Guatemala: $23.12 per person per day

We splurged constantly in Guatemala. We took advantage of the high quality international cuisine in Antigua and around Lake Atitlan, putting away pots of fondue and bottles of wine, and discovering the wonders of Israeli food. Still, we managed to spend less than $25 per person per day by staying away from overpriced tourist shuttles and keeping our booze easy and local, plus we chose budget accommodation under $10 per person in a private room.

Guatemala hostelsAccommodation: On average we spent $9 per person per night. The cheapest private room we stayed in was $4.90 per person, the most expensive was $16 per person.
Transport: Local buses cost between $0.50 and $3.
The most expensive bus we took was a night bus from Flores to Guatemala City for $29 each. After that, we only traveled by local buses and never spent more than $3.
Food: $6 – $10 per person including drinks. Beer $1 – $2.
Activities: Pacaya volcano $13, Tikal including transport & guide $30, ruins in Antigua $5

tienda Chichicastenango Guatemala

Honduras: $28.68 per person per day

Honduras can be done on the super cheap, but as we spent the Christmas holidays here, we treated ourselves to nicer hotels (maximum $25 for both of us together) and special holiday meals. Only for that reason did we end up spending more per day than Guatemala or El Salvador. We avoided the famous islands of Utila and Roatan, however, and visitors to the islands would most likely also average similar costs, as the mainland is considerably cheaper than these popular diving isles.

Accommodation: between $7.50 and $12 per person in a double room
Transport:
Buses are between $2 and $4, the most expensive bus ride was $7.
Food:
$5 – $7 per person including drink. Beer $0.60 – $1.50.
Activities: The most expensive activity was visiting the Copan ruins at $15 per person

Honduras Tegucigalpa church

El Salvador: $24.05 per person per day

Accommodation was the most expensive aspect of traveling in El Salvador – we found everything else (transport, food, drinks) super affordable. We did fall hard for pupusas; eating them every meal (almost) kept our food costs way down. In general El Salvador doesn’t have much in the way of expensive tourist sites, museums are free on certain days, and even surfing can be done for $10 to $20 per lesson.

Accommodation: $10 per person in a double room with shared bathroom, $12.50 per person in a double room with private bathroom and hot shower
Transport:
Buses are seriously cheap here, between $1 – $2, with the most expensive bus ride costing $4.
Food:
A meal was around $4 per person, including drinks (beer). Again, pupusas cost 40 cents each, and beer is usually $1.
Activities: The most expensive activity was a guided hike in Alegria for $7.50 per person.

Sunset over river El Salvador

Nicaragua: $31.81 (including the Corn Islands)/$20.76 (excluding the Corn Islands)

In Nicaragua, we treated ourselves to a well-earned splurge, and made the trip out to the Corn Islands. This raised our daily average significantly, but not everyone is going to make the trip to the Corn Islands. Without the trip, Nicaragua would have been the cheapest country in Central America for us. Even with eating out twice a day almost every day, we barely spent more than $20 per person per day.

leon hostelsAccommodation: $7.50 per person in a double room average
Transport: Buses were usually less than $1; the most expensive ride was $1.80
Food: Breakfast was between $2 and $3.50; dinner was $4 and max. $7 with beer between 50 cents and $1.20.
Activities: Movie theater tickets cost $1.90 (snacks around $1.80), daily bike rental $3.90

Horse-carriage granada nicaragua

Costa Rica: $26.62 per person per day

Rumor has it that Costa Rica is more expensive than the rest of Central America, but we had a great time and easily kept costs down. Sure, it was quite a shock to see the prices in Costa Rica after coming from super cheap Nicaragua, but they didn’t vary much from prices in Honduras or El Salvador. Spend your money wisely, and those extras such as zip-lining, guided hikes and National Park visits won’t break the bank, or put you above budget, but if you’re not careful (and you like to drink beer), it’s easy to burn through Colones in a snap. There is cheap accommodation in Costa Rica, but the quality you get for $20 here is certainly far less than in the rest of Central America.

Accommodation: $10 per person in a double room
Transport: $1.20 for short distance bus rides, $2.50 for medium-distance rides, $8.00 for long distance bus rides
Food: A meal in a restaurant or in a soda runs at around $5 to $9. Beer $2 – $3.
Culture: The National Parks in Costa Rica are exceptionally beautiful and well worth the entrance fees, which range from $10 to $20. Ziplining is around $40 from the cheapest provider in Monteverde.

Monkey Manuel Antonio Costa Rica

Panama: $35.71 per person per day

Like El Salvador, Panama also uses the U.S. Dollar, but here the inflation caused costs in Panama to be significantly higher than anywhere else in Central America. Goods and services here are often priced equally to the US thanks to a seriously large ex-pat population (especially in Panama City), but with beer still average 75 cents a bottle…who’s complaining! The islands of Bocas del Toro were above average in price, while the mountain town of Boquete was easily affordable. As a global city, Panama City is home to the finest luxury accommodation as well as 25 cent bus rides and street food for $1.

Accommodation: $10 per person per night – the cheapest accommodation was $6.50 per person in a triple room, the most expensive was $12 per person (also in a triple).
Transport: $1.50 for short-distance bus rides, $7 for medium distances, 12.50 for long distances. Inner city buses in Panama City cost between $0.25 and $0.50.
Food: A meal is between $3 and $8, depending on the location.
Culture: The Panama Canal visitor center at the Miraflores Lock is $8, a ferry ride to Taboga Island is $12 for a return ticket, and movie theater tickets are $3.

Panama Hats in Panama City

Practical information:

  • We were able to stick to our budget mainly because we used Lonely Planet’s Central America on a shoestring guidebook, which has super useful budget information for each individual country. It’s not a light book and it takes up quite a lot of space, but carrying it was well worth it for us (not only for budget tips, but also hostel recommendations, maps, and up-to-date information on how to get from A to B.)
  • We chose almost exclusively very cheap local transportation instead of the more expensive tourist shuttles.
  • We ate at cheap local restaurants but also opted for pricier tourist restaurants more often than other travelers. If you eat where the locals eat and sleep in dorm rooms, you can travel Central America on less money than we did.
  • Note that we didn’t party a lot while we were there – we know lots of backpackers who party much more in Central America than we did – so if you’re planning on going out a lot, make sure to add that to your budget.
  • Wondering what to pack for your trip to Central America? Check out our packing list for the things we can’t travel without and the gear we’ve ditched over time.

Have you traveled through Central America? If you have, what countries did you find budget-friendly? Where did you splurge? If you haven’t gone through Central America, let us know if you plan to go and if you need any budget advice.

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Eating our way through Central America

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Travel can be about discovering new place and meeting new people, but one of the most exciting aspects of travel is the food! Every time we cross a border, we look forward to sampling new street food, discovering new fruits or vegetables, or trying out a local specialty. As vegetarians traveling through Central America, there weren’t many non-meat specialties, but we never had any trouble finding plenty of delicious food to eat! Sure, we had many, many plates of rice & beans and way too many eggs as we made our way from Mexico to Panama, but we managed to find a favorite dish in every country.

Here are some of our favorite dishes as we ate our way through Central America:

Street food tacos in GuatemalaWhen we arrived in Guatemala, we still missed Mexican street food (a lot!) and so we were happy when we found a street food stall in Antigua that sold flautas… but wait, here they were called tacos, and while they weren’t as good as Mexican flautas, it was a tough call between the tacos and the tostadas for our Guatemalan street food.

It was in Guatemala where we started to have the typical breakfast consisting of black beans, eggs, rice and tortillas… a breakfast we would have dozens of times during the next few months (who’s complaining!).

Desayuno Tipico GuatemaltecoIn El Salvador, we fell in love with pupusas. Thick corn tortillas are stuffed with cheese, refried beans or both (or meat) and served with a vinegar-cabbage salad and a hot salsa. We ate pupusas every day and had at least one at almost every meal. No matter if we had them at a street food stall, in a restaurant or a special pupuseria, they were always delicious (except for that one time on the bus in the 102 degree heat). Pupusas cost $0.20 to $0.40 a piece, making them a ridiculously cheap meal.

El Salvador pupusasHonduran food did not impress Jess, but I went crazy for Baleadas, which are large thin flour tortillas filled with egg, refried beans, salsa and avocado – almost like a breakfast burrito, but folded instead of rolled.

Baleada in HondurasNicaragua had some of the best food of our trip so far, even though the dishes did not vary too much. We just loved the fresh fruits! We had a pineapple a day between the two of us, loads of watermelon, papaya (which even Jess, usually a papaya hater, thought tasted good) and zapote, a bright red fruit with a fuzzy brown outside similar to a kiwi. We loved the Nicaraguan beer and we devoured every single breakfast we had in Nicaragua, which remained the basic eggs, toast, rice and beans, but now instead of regular rice and beans, we were eating Gallo Pinto, which is rice & beans in a special sauce mix.

Banana vendor in Leon NicaraguaWhile we stayed in Leon, we went to the market every day and bought fresh fruits and vegetables.

leon market papayaThe vegetarian lunch plates were usually big enough for the two of us to share:

Lunch in Nicaragua: plantains, rice, beans, cheese, yucca and eggsThe plate comes with eggs, yucca, fried plantain AND plantain chips, rice & beans, deep-fried cheese cubes AND fried cheese plus cabbage salad on the side. Not very healthy, but delicious – plus, remember all that fruit we were eating…right?

Tostones with cheese in NicaraguaWe also loved these waist-expanding tostones (flattened & fried green savory plantains) topped with fried cheese cubes.

veggie plate NicaraguaDinner meant usually more rice & beans, more plantains, and vegetables in a sauce of your choice.

Veggie plate in NicaraguaThe vegetarian sandwiches, stacked with vegetables and a chayote patty, and served with fried plantains AND plantain chips, were also very tasty.

Veggie sandwich in NicaraguaWe bought Bunuelos, little cheesy dough balls served with a watery honey syrup on the streets of Granada:

bunuelos NicaraguaBut seriously, the best food we had in Nicaragua were the amazing breakfasts:

Nicaragua breakfastGallo Pinto with fried eggs and a SPICY sauce which will wake you up for sure!

Our love affair with Gallo Pinto didn’t need to end in Nicaragua, as it is practically the national dish of neighboring Costa Rica, although the best vegetarian food in Costa Rica are the casados, big plates filled with rice, pasta, black beans, steamed or grilled vegetables and a salad. Sometimes they also have plantains or cheese, and they are always under $5 for a super filling dinner.

Casado vegetariano Costa RicaYou can order a casado with pretty much any kind of meat, but for us the casados vegetarianos were perfect, and not once did they disappoint.

Casado Vegetariano Costa RicaCosta Ricans get more creative with their cuisine in some of the nicer restaurants. We had a good splurge and ordered these fabulous yucca fries and cheese-filled yucca balls – totally worth it!

Yucca plates Costa RicaPanama does not cater to vegetarians the way the other Central American countries do, and while the food is very meaty, you also do not find a lot with tortillas. This means all the tortilla foods – tacos, flautas, baleadas, tostadas, are no longer available as street food. Of course veggies can still get heaping plates of potato salad, rice & beans and plantains for around $2 to $3, and fruit is easy to find and fill up on.

panamanian vegetarian mealIn Panama, we felt the proximity to South America in the cuisine, one example being that there were empanadas everywhere, and because of the excellent variety, it was here in Panama that we were finally able to choose from loads of veggie options – cheese, egg and potato and (this is genius) empanadas filled with Gallo Pinto (we gobbled those up too fast for photos, the one below is egg and potato):

empanada with eggs panamaEvery Central American country (and Mexico) offers up incredibly delicious, freezing cold and surprisingly large licuados – fresh fruit juices, like smoothies, but prepared either with water or milk. You can usually get your licuado with any one tropical fruit or all mixed together. To die for!

Licuados in Costa RicaFruit made up a significant part of our diet, as the plastic bags or cups of fruit are faster, cheaper and healthier than any other ‘fast food’. For less than $1 you get a big cup filled with pineapple, watermelon or papaya. We found this mouth-watering strawberry-banana mix, topped with cream, in Todos Santos, Guatemala, for 5 Quetzales, or $0.60.

Guatemala Banana & Strawberry MixAre you as hungry as we are now?!

If you’ve traveled through Central America, we’d love to know your favorite foods! If you’ve traveled to South America, do you have any suggestions for us for when we finally get there?

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The Panama Canal Train Ride: Is it worth it?

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We had heard about the train ride along the Panama Canal months before arriving in Panama City, and there was no question we were going to do it. In fact, we had really been looking forward to it. I have been fascinated with the Panama Canal for years, and we both love train rides – an activity nearly non-existent anywhere else in Central America. The idea of connecting those two for a great day out was a no-brainer, with thoughts of speeding through the dense jungle which connects the Pacific and Caribbean coast, spotting exotic animals and fascinating flora, learning more about the canal and spotting the mega-container ships as they are lowered and lifted at locks along the canal. Unfortunately, the train ride didn’t quite live up to our imagination.

Panama Canal Train Station
Luxury on the rails?

Described as a luxurious train ride by two different guide books, we were so tempted by the experience, even in spite of the early morning departure time. The train leaves from Panama City at 7:15am and arrives in Colon on the opposite coast 45 minutes later, returning to Panama City at 5pm.

Panama Canal railway company sign

In reality, calling this trip luxurious was a stretch. Sure, the train car’s design harks back to the glory days of train travel, with carpeted floors, soft, low lighting and strong wooden paneling throughout the car. Waitresses served us each a very tiny paper cup of instant coffee, a small plastic cup of candy yogurt and a cookie. But that was as luxury as it got. No guide explained what we were seeing, no fun period music played in the background, no typical Panamanian food/breakfast/coffee was served on board. Panama City does luxury very well, and while this train ride was pleasant, it was by no means luxe.

Panama Canal Train Waggon

Being ‘cattled’

Only one train runs along these rails each morning and evening, and as such, this is not only a tourist train but also functions a commuter train. The 7:15 departure time is geared much more toward professionals than any sort of comfortable time for tourists. On arrival to the station, foreigners are led to a specific car of the train, and locals, who most definitely do not pay the $44 return fare, are seated in the five to six additional cars with the same views, minus the free coffee. Back in the tourist wagon, we were lucky enough to snap up the last seats with canal views, and those who came after us were seated on the other side of the car.

Panama Canal train lights

Where are the views?

Plenty of people went outside to the viewing platform outside and took pictures, but the views were okay at best. Where was the wildlife everyone was talking about? The train cuts through green jungle for most of the way, but we saw much more wildlife in the Metropolitan Park ($2 entry fee) right in the heart of Panama City.

The canal itself was only visible in parts and we spotted water through breaks in the flora until reaching Gatun Lake. This is widest part of the canal as well as the most beautiful, yet as quickly as the lake came into view, it disappeared again, very similar to the feeling of the canal ride in general. 55 minutes sped by so quickly it felt like as soon as it had really begun, it was over and we had arrived in Colon.
Panama Canal view from train

A snack box!

Before getting off the train – and not a minute before – every passenger was given a ‘Panama Canal Train Ride’ snack box with a mini-can of Pringles and small packs of cookies, peanuts and raisins. Despite its childish Happy Meal feeling, the main issue we had with this was wondering why on Earth these snack packs would not have been handed during the ride? Many of us had not had any breakfast and the station had no food at all, so most of us were already ravenous.

Panama Canal view

Will we get robbed?

The train ride does not even extend to the third and final set of locks, but rather right in the center of the city – known by all as one of the most dangerous cities in Panama. Locals had warned us not to visit Colon at all, but what to do for those nine hours before the train returns at 5pm?

Panama Canal Train

Upon exiting the train, it was expected that the tourists allow themselves to be corralled once more into one of the day trips to nearby beaches (for $100) or overpriced trips to the nearby Gatun Locks ($60 – the bus there was 25 cents) offered by taxi drivers with fancy (old, torn up) posters at the station, which every other traveler but us seemed to do. After fifteen cabs took the 40 passengers everywhere else but Colon, we were semi-stranded, alone, at a train station in a seriously shady area. We shortly found our way to the bus station and headed to the Gatun Locks.

Gatun locks ship close-up

The visit was fascinating, and a more intimate affair than the Miraflores Lock in Panama City. The staff was full of information, answered questions personally, and visitors were few and far between in comparison.

However, after an hour, with no museum, no café, no visitors center, we weren’t sure how to spend the next several hours before the train returned. We opted instead to return to Panama City by bus, which, at a fraction of the fare was just as fast and brought us directly to Albrook Mall in the city, rather than the train station which is a cab ride from anywhere.

Gatun locks close-up

Would we recommend the train ride?

Absolutely not.

Here is what we do recommend:

If you only want to have seen the Panama Canal, visit the Miraflores locks from Panama City. For all other travelers who are truly interested in the Canal, we would recommend a visit to the Gatun Locks for a glimpse of the massive container ships head into the Caribbean or into the Canal to head out to the Pacific. Take the bus. It’s $1.50 instead of $22 per person.

If you are looking to spot wildlife, go to Parque Metropolitano or Metropolitan Park, a jungle right inside Panama City.

For day trips to the beaches, rent a car. Four people pay $88 for the train one way, and a Panama City car rental costs less and gets you to the beaches and back.

If you are looking for a quick beach escape, take the ferry out to Taboga Island instead. From here you can see the container ships lined up to pass through the canal, all while sipping on a cold beer from the comfort of the sandy beach.

Gatun locks with container ship

Have you ever anticipated an excellent place/tour/experience and were disappointed by the outcome? Is there an experience or tour you have done that you would advise people not to take part in? Please help everyone to avoid such rip-offs in the comments (oh, and if you have done the train ride and enjoyed it, feel free to let us know about that as well!)

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Top 5 things to do in Panama City, Panama

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Visit the Panama Canal – The heart of Panama City

The Canal is the pulse of Panama and what makes the city tick, feeding it with a steady (and tremendous) source of income and international respect and fame. The canal cuts 51 miles east to west through the country, the impressive Miraflores locks are the first set of locks closest to Panama City, and are by far the most visitor-friendly, with a large visitor center, a museum detailing the canal’s history and a small cinema which shows a short film about the construction of the canal.
Miraflores locks Panama canal
Once outside, there are several terraces to view the colossal container ships being raised or lowered through the locks. Ships carrying over 4,400 containers squeeze through the canal, paying per pound upwards of $400,000 each time to pass. In the mornings, ships heading from the Pacific to the Atlantic go through, the direction is then reversed in the afternoons. There are excellent explanations in English and Spanish over the speakers while the ships pass through, and you leave feeling very informed about how the Panama Canal (and international shipping) works.
Miraflores locks container shipThe locks are an easy 10-minute taxi ride outside of town. There is also a bus, leaving from Albrook Bus Terminal, which drops you off at the street leading to the docks (about 100m walk).

Miraflores Locks – $8 all-inclusive ticket.
Taxi from Panama City – $5-$6
Bus from Albrook Mall – $0.50

The Metropolitan Park (Parque Metropolitano): A jungle in the city

The Metropolitan Park is so much more than just a park. It’s an entire rainforest in the city, home to hundreds of animals and an oasis of peace and quiet in an otherwise very busy city. On a hike you can spot monkeys, anteaters, pacas, toucans, woodpeckers, hummingbirds, turtles, ‘jesus christ’ lizards, butterflies, snakes and many more.
Anteater at Parque Metropolitano Panama City
There are four trails leading up to Cedar Hill, which offers fabulous views over the city, and during the week you have the entire park to yourself. We spotted more animals in this jungle than in some National Parks, and here we were right in the city, just a 15 minute walk from a shopping mall to rival any large American mall.
Panama city skyline from Parque Metropolitano Panama City
Park entrance – $2.00

Bus ride – $.025 – $.050

Casco Viejo – A stroll through Panama City’s colonial quarter

Casco Viejo is may be Panama City’s historic heart, and was declared a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1998. Many of the colonial buildings lining cobblestone alleys and grand-tree filled plazas for this reason have been restored, and the colonial churches and architecture make this part of Panama City feel more like Europe than anywhere else in Central America.
casco viejo panama city
Take time to stroll through this beautiful quarter, which was even featured in the James Bond film ‘Quantum of Solace’. Although the true center of the city with time has shifted to the financial district 2 miles up the waterfront, Casco Viejo, has several excellent restaurants and cafes, cheap eats, and easily the best views of the stunning Panama City skyline.

A walk along the promenade – Skyscraper watching

Starting in Casco Viejo and ending at the Multicentro Shopping Center in the Bella Vista area of the city, there is a two-mile long promenade along the waterfront which is perfect for enjoying the skyscraper skyline set on the Pacific Ocean. You will walk toward this impressive architecture passing the famous fish market, the yacht harbor and dozens of freights ships lined up and waiting to pass through the Panama Canal. The promenade is well-paved and easy on the knees, and hundreds of joggers weave around you as you walk.
Panama City skyline & yachts
If you’re looking for a place to stay fit in Panama City, jogging here is perfect, just make sure to get up early, as the heat in the afternoon can be oppressive at best.

Be a beach bum – A day trip to Taboga Island

Panama City can get hot, extremely hot! If you have a few days in the city, Taboga Island makes for the perfect day trip. 12 miles off the coast, this little island does not have much more to offer than a small sandy beach and crystal clear water, but that’s all we needed to escape the bustle of the city just a 30-minute ferry ride away. If you get bored lying at the beach, this tiny island paradise also have hiking trails and the small village center has a couple of cheapish restaurants with excellent seafood and ice cold beer.
Taboga Island beach and Panama City in the background

…And an extra tip for long-term travelers:

See a movie in English & go shopping!

We know that for backpackers, a shopping mall is not high up on the list, but if you have been on the road for a while, a visit to one of Panama City’s malls is like being teleported home. We had been travelling for over six months through Central America and welcomed the chance to sit in an air-conditioned movie theater (did we mention Panama is hot?) watching current and cheap ($3) Hollywood blockbusters in English at the Albrook mall (also the main bus terminal). And sure, we know you don’t want American fast food, we’re backpackers, right? Well… we scarfed down Taco Bell at the huge food court which has everything you could possible crave – Subway, Mickey D’s, Taco Bell, Dunkin Donuts, Popeyes, Wendy’s … you name it!
Panama City Mall food courtA last tip for long-term travelers: if your clothes need replacing (and not just in the form of traveler pants), the malls here are great for that. Not only do they have clothes that are more North American or European in style, they also have sizes to fit us non-Latinas out there!

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