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Central America

California Dreamin’…. in Nicaragua

Beach San Juan Del Sur Nicaragua

After browsing through the enormous selection of recent bestsellers (in English!) at El Gato Negro café and bookstore, Dani and I took a seat at one of the colorful tables by the window and ordered one creatively-named bagel breakfast and splurged on an overpriced but tummy flattening blueberry and spirulina health smoothie. While we waited for our food in the restaurant packed with Americans, we watched out the window as six very built blond surfers loaded up their truck with their boards for a day out on the waves.
San Juan del Sur house NicaraguaWith the sounds of surfer talk like ‘gnarly’ and ‘dude’ ringing in our ears, the morning sun could have easily been shining over Santa Monica or Venice, California, but we were actually seated at a restaurant thousands of miles south on the Pacific coast in small beach town called San Juan del Sur, Nicaragua. After traveling through the country from Esteli in the north through Leon, Managua, the Corn Islands, Granada and the island of Ometepe in Lake Nicaragua, it was hard to believe that this surfer town could possibly be in the same country.

San Juan del Sur street
Located 45 minutes from the border to Costa Rica, San Juan del Sur combines the laid back surfer culture of Costa Rica with a touch a North American infrastructure and culture, all at Nicaraguan prices. You will find the bright colored houses which are typical for Central America but also a few new modern-style apartment buildings, which are clearly aimed at the North American expats – of which there are plenty.

The range of accommodation, from hostels to beach resorts, fits all budgets for surfers and family holidaymakers alike. For visitors who speak no Spanish, there are plenty of ‘gringos’ here to talk to, but many people who come to San Juan del Sur find it to be the perfect place to take Spanish classes in between surf lessons or lying on the beach.Beach in San Juan Del Sur NicaraguaFar from an ‘authentic’ Nicaraguan feeling, San Juan is well-loved by international tourists – a fact which is reflected in the relatively high prices, easily comparable to California, in restaurants and bars throughout the town.

However, eating cheap is still possible by eating in the inexpensive sodas, or local eateries. The term ‘soda’ actually describes cheap Costa Rican food spots, and the tradition has crossed the border thanks to the high number of Costa Rican tourists who choose San Juan del Sur as their own beach getaway. Several budget hostals also have kitchens, making it possible to feel right at home in San Juan del Sur – the perfect place to kick back for several days.

House in San Juan del Sur NicaraguaThe long, sandy beach in town, never very full, is set in a beautiful bay, where the water has nearly no waves at all. There are even better beaches 10 – 20 minutes outside of the town (especially for surfing), and can be reached by one of the surfer shuttles which leave at 10am each day from outside of the countless surf shops, or you can take a taxi for around $10 or rent a bicycle which allows you to explore several of the nearly-deserted beaches up and down the coast. San Juan del Sur has long, wide streets with next to no traffic, safe for both bicycles and pedestrians alike.

Tona Victoria Frost Beer San Juan del Sur NicaraguaNo matter how much of that California feeling you may get, San Juan del Sur has managed to maintain its Nicaraguan charm. Front porches are lined with rocking chairs, vendors selling granizados and Chicha push their carts through the streets and the people are open and genuinely friendly. While the store shelves are lined with Pop Tarts and Oreos, the famous Flor de Caña rum is still cheap as chips, so make sure to have at least one good rum night out , or at least take advantage of the countless happy hour 2×1 beer and cocktail specials.

Starting early is a tradition here, so grab a drink at one of the many beach bars and catch a breathtaking sunset in the bay over the Pacific Ocean, a phenomenon which happens like clockwork nearly every day in this relaxed beach town.
Sunset in San Juan del Sur Nicaragua

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Please don’t go to Samara Beach…

samara beach sunset1

Costa Rica may be a well established destination on the tourist trail, but the Nicoya Peninsula is still very much the country’s own Wild Wild West. Lucky for us, what started off as a transportation nightmare led us to discover our favorite beach on Costa Rica’s Pacific coast: Samara Beach.

Why Visit Samara Beach?

We had no plans to visit Samara Beach. Sure, it was suggested in the guidebooks like countless other Costa Rican beaches. However, despite naysayers’ warnings that efforts to traverse the entire peninsula by bus would prove futile, our plan was to get from Playa del Coco in the north down to the popular, once-isolated beach town of Montezuma on the very southern tip of the Nicoya. We pushed along all the way to the sleepy, scorchingly hot inland city of Nicoya, the peninsula’s namesake, before realizing, weary and dusty from an already long afternoon of bus travel, that there was indeed no way to get down to Montezuma without paying a private taxi $120 to make the remaining five-hour, tire-busting trip.samara beach surfer After chatting to several very helpful taxi drivers and a group of American language students on their way back to Samara Beach after a trekking adventure, we spontaneously decided to join our fellow ‘gringos’. The next bus to Samara Beach left just thirty minutes later and arrived within an hour.

As soon as we arrived, we were enchanted by the beauty of the beach from the start. We basked in the late afternoon sun, admiring the tropical palm trees which line the miles of wide, white sand beach. The town itself is really only a collection of hotels and restaurants along one road perpendicular to the coast and a smattering of hotels and beach lounges on the beach.

Despite the well-developed tourism here, this beautiful beach location is noticeably absent of all-inclusive resorts, and the tourists here are different than the older retirees of Playa del Coco or aging hippies at Montezuma, populated instead by younger couples and smart travelers looking to escape all of that.samara beach cloudy sunset
samara beach from water

The area is certainly almost exclusively populated by tourists, ex-pats and locals working in tourism, but Samara Beach does not feel contrived the way that many Costa Rican destinations have now begun to feel. There are no chain hotels, no fast food restaurants, and no multi-story buildings. When you look back at the land from the water, the buildings peek out from amongst lush jungle and striking cliffs. The best thing about Samara is that the endless amount of sandy beaches always feels  fairly empty, no matter how full the hotels actually are.

The ocean here is shallow, and the waves are present enough to learn to surf but unforgiving enough to enjoy a day splashing around in them, not the case in many locations up and down the Pacific coast from Mexico through Nicaragua (exception: San Juan del Sur). After a day in the waves, there are sunset beach lounges with mellow music, creative cocktails and international cuisine. The magical sunsets during our stay turned the sky various shades of purple and pink, causing a wall of bikini-clad amateur paparazzi to form, trying to capture the stunning scenery.Sunset at Samara BeachEven though there are quite a lot of international (mostly American) tourists, Samara Beach still manages to feel like an off-the-beaten-path location – which, of course, the town is not. Visitors here can surf, kayak, take a boat ride, book a sport-fishing trip, go diving, head inland to the jungle nearby for canopy tours, or rent a bicycle or hop on a horse and ride up and down the miles of deserted coastline. Samara Beach even advertises itself as a key spot for destination weddings.

The hotels remain reasonably priced, although budget accommodation in Samara Beach, as in Costa Rica in general, is harder to come by. We stayed at Casa Valeria, which Frommers called the best budget option on the beach back then. The hotel has 9 stand alone beach bungalows for $50 and a pair of cheaper rooms for $30. (Note: Casa Valaeria is still around, I found a standard room including breakfast for $38 on Booking.com in 2019, but I do think that there are now newer, better options in town.)

There is a new hostel in town, Hostel Matilori, which cost around $16 per person per night in a dorm or $40 in a private room – the advantage to the bungalows and other hotels is that the hostel has two shared kitchens. (Update 2019: The hostel is not so new anymore, but still has great reviews. You can book it here.)Casa Valeria Hammocks & bungalow Samara BeachSamara beach & ocean

Samara Beach is the Costa Rican vacation we really wanted, fulfilling perfectly the image still being sold in the travel brochures. The level of tourism here makes for the perfect peaceful escape – all of the organization you need and none of the banana-boat and disco clubs you don’t. The problem with Samara Beach is that it is at its tipping point, and while the balance is now is perfect, more tourists arriving each year might convert the place into another overly Americanized beach like Montezuma, Playa del Coco or Jaco Beach (lined with Quiznos and Pizza Huts).

This is why we beg you…please don’t go to Samara Beach. But if you do go, which you really should, please don’t tell anyone else about this perfect Costa Rican beach location.

Practical information for visiting Samara Beach

How to get to Samara Beach

The closest airport is Liberia (about 2 hours by car from Samara), but you can also fly into San Jose and get to Samara by car (4 hours) or bus (about 5 hours). A taxi from Liberia airport is between US$50 and US$60. Important: Negotiate the fare before you get in the cab!samara beach horseback riders

To Samara Beach by bus: You can take a bus from San Jose or Liberia to Nicoya, and then change onto a bus to Samara. The bus company that runs from Nicoya to Samara is called Empresa Rojas. It takes about 90 minutes to get from Nicoya to Samara.

Alfaro express buses go directly from San José daily at noon from Avenida 5 between calles 14 and 16. The trip takes 5 hours; check here for current timetables and fares (2017 fare: ₡4,395/ US$7.95). 2019 fare: ₡4.470 / US$7.97)

To Samara Beach by car: You can rent a car right at the airport in both San Jose and Liberia. The roads are simple country roads but okay to drive on. If you don’t want to drive all the way to Samara from San Jose but would like to have a car to explore more of the Nicoya Peninsula – you can also rent a car in Samara.

samara beach with palm trees
Where to stay in Samara

Budget:

  • Las Mariposas – hostel right on the beach, private single rooms from US$35, doubles from US$40, dorm bed US$15 – review score 8.5
  • Woodstock Hostel – close to the beach, but further away from the center. Double room US$31, dorm bed US$15. Review Score 8.9
  • Oasis – 2-bedroom house right on the beach from US$35. Review score 8.9
  • Hostel El Dorado – double room for US$40, review score 8.6

Value:

samara hotels

Splurge:

  • Samara Chillout Lodge – New adults-only boutique hotel in a quiet area away from the beach. Rooms from US$95. Review score 9.5
  • Las Perlitas – Beautifully decorated hotel with pool in the center of Samara, doubles from US$99 incl breakfast. Review score 9.5
  • Hotel Leyenda – Small hotel with beautiful swimming pools and gardens. Doubles from US$99 including breakfast. Review score 9.1
  • Hotel Samara Paraiso – small hotel with swimming pool near Izquierda Beach. Apartments and bungalows from around US$120. Review score 9.4
  • Colina Del Mar – Intimate hotel away from the beach on a hillside, stunning nature setting. Small swimming pool. Rooms from around US$149 including breakfast. Review score 9.3
  • Nammbu Beach Front Bungalows – Playa Carillo. My favorite beach just south of Samara – if you want complete serenity, this small boutique hotel is for you. Rooms from US$150
  • la isla que no hay – Two bedroom house in the center of Samara from US$199 per night (sleeps 4 people), swimming pool. Review score 8.9
  • The Hideaway Hotel – on the far southern end of the beach, between Samara and Playa Carillo. Swimming pool and on-site restaurant. Double rooms start at US$278 – review score 9.1

samara beach costa rica

Airbnb’s in Samara Beach

Check out Airbnb homes in Samara by clicking on the map below. There are also Experiences, i.e. tours run by locals, that you can book via Airbnb.

 

Where to eat in Samara Beach

There are several inexpensive sodas, local restaurants in Samara. These simple restaurants serve up Costa Rica’s main dish: casado. A casado usually includes your choice of beef, chicken, pork or fish, rice and beans, salad, a vegetable side dish, and fried plantains. Vegetarians can ask for fresh cheese or eggs instead of meat. A casado is between US$4 and US$6.samara beach casado
Other places worth checking out:

  • Samara Organics MercadoCafe (Natural Center, in front of Gusto Beach Restaurant, Sámara, 50205, Costa Rica)
  • Ahora Si! (Samara’s first vegetarian restaurant)
  • Bohemia Cafe (great breakfasts, smoothies and light fare in the center of town)
  • Lo Que Hay (Mexican restaurant right on the beach)
  • Luv Burgers (Vegetarian Burgers)
  • Restaurant Giada (Italian restaurant right in the center of town, look for Hotel Giada on Main Street)
  • Roots Bakery & Cafe (Fantastic bakery /coffee shop / breakfast place in town. Near Hotel Giada)
  • El Lagarto (Best place in Samara for steaks, barbecue and seafood)

samara beach lo que hay filled avocados

Afterword: I first visited Samara Beach in 2011, and I have gotten many emails from readers over the past few years asking me if Samara “was over”. i.e. if it had been discovered by mainstream tourism. After a short return in 2012, I finally returned to Samara this past winter and I am happy to report that I found the exact same tranquil beach paradise that I found when I first ended up in Samara nearly a decade ago.

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14 things we love about El Salvador

Laguna de Alegria

If you don’t know why anyone would visit El Salvador, read on for fourteen things we loved about traveling in the country. Why 14 things? Well, we spent 14 days traveling around this small Central American country, and we’re sharing one fact for each day we spent there.

  1. Pupusas We could eat these lovely little things morning, noon and night. Honestly: pupusas are reason enough why you should visit El Salvador!
  2. Sunsets over the Pacific – beautiful every single day we were there.why visit El Salvador
  3. SuchitotoWith loads of culture and located on the shores of lake Suchitlan, the cute colonial town is equally popular with foreign tourists and weekenders from San Salvador.
  4. Salvadorians – don’t let the number of people packing pistols throw you off – the good-spirited people of El Salvador are as kind and helpful as they are lively. There might be rotten apples in every bunch, but during our time in the country the number of times people went above and beyond to help us is countless.
  5. The Beer – El Salvador is hot, and they serve up their beer cold. There is nothing like a 5 o’clock Golden or Pilsener in El Salvador.why visit El Salvador
  6. Villa Balanza in Suchitoto – worth a visit for a cheap, very well-prepared lunch or a great hotel stay with wi-fi, lake views and peace and quiet.
  7. Climbing the volcano crater and mountains around La Laguna de Alegria
  8. Escencia Nativa although we were not fans of the beaches of El Salvador, Escencia Nativa hostel in the beachside spot of El Zonte does everything right. Owner Alex, a former champion surfer turned hostel owner and native of El Salvador, has constructed a perfect chill out spot which works as well for surfers after a hard day on the waves, as well as for non-surfers who spend the day relaxing at the pool and scarfing down the delicious food and drink.
  9. The Painted Phone Poles Artistic spirit is very much alive in El Salvador, and, more than in most other Central American countries, there is plenty of street art, murals, and inspiring graffiti. In the towns of Ataco, Alegria, and Suchitoto, the phone and electricity poles are all painted on the bottom, individually designed by different artists and displaying many positive messages and histories.why visit El Salvador
  10. The colorful buildings of Ataco, a village among the ‘Ruta de las Flores‘, El Salvador’s Flower Route
  11. Entre Piedras hostel in Alegria – read here for a full review.
  12. The vendors on chicken buses – Travel long enough through Latin America and you come to know: where there is a ‘chicken bus’ there are people selling food. In El Salvador, the entire bus+food vendor process is taken to a whole new level. Rather than one or two, there are up to 15 vendors on one bus at any given time. Regardless whether every single vendor on the bus is selling the same thing, each individual makes her/himself heard while selling pupusas, fish, or entire chicken meals with fries on plates wrapped in plastic. But it’s not just food. One day, we bought toothbrushes for a great deal on the bus. The next day, for half the price, we could have gotten the two toothbrushes with a pack of three pens. Why didn’t we wait? El Salvador
  13. Frozens – similar to licuados (or fruit+ water shakes), in the hot, hot sun of El Salvador, the Frozen is a very large, very frozen version and is delicious.
  14. The seven waterfalls around Juayua – these waterfalls are located just past the popular tourist town of Juayua, and tours can be organised in town. Jason and Aracely, the TwoBackpackers, also explored the 7 waterfalls when they came through El Salvador and have great video footage on their website.Waterfall Juayua, El Salvador

 

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One year of travel: Our expenses

Dani & Jess at Cerro de la Cruz in Antigua

We have on been on the road for one year, and want to share our expenses as a follow up to our first 6 months of travel, which we posted here. Read on for our detailed round the world trip budget, the total sum of every single penny we spent between 30 April 2010 and 30 April 2011. We decided to provide our spending summary for two reasons. Firstly, we would like to compare with other long-term travelers and see if we are in the same range of spending. Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, we would like to show our readers who don’t travel long-term just how affordable and realistic this experience really is.

Note: Expenses are stated in both USD and GBP since we both earn money in GBP, but did most of our spending comparing various currencies to US Dollars.

round the world trip budget

Our total round-the-world-trip budget – How much did we spend?

Per Couple $28,483.55 £18,181.51
     
Per Person $14,241.77 £9,090.75

Average expenses: Per Month

Per Couple
$2,373.63
£1,515.13
     
Per Person $1,186.81
£757.56

Our expenses include all every flight we took, our pricey Corn Islands vacation, every hostel / hotel / motel / apartment that we slept in, every bus / boat / tuktuk / taxi / train we took, every car we rented, every meal we ate, every beer we drank, various medications, every donation we gave, plus everything else we spent our money on.

Latin America vs Europe and North America

We spent two thirds of the time (8 months) in Mexico and Central America, and one third (4 months, 2.5 / 1.5) in the US and Europe, but over half of our expenses come from our time in Europe/US: $13,232.24 / £8494.41!  Had we traveled only in Latin America, we would have probably spent a lot less.

We have to admit that this round the world trip budget was a bit higher than we expected, but we never really tried to keep our expenses down. Unlike other travelers, we are technically digital nomads and earn money as we go, so we never have to worry (knock on wood) about scraping the bottom of the money barrel. We rented cars in the U.S. and Europe (not cheap!) we ate out a lot, we didn’t always stay in the cheapest hostels, and we recently booked a rather expensive flight to Europe.

Jess backpacking through the jungle

Housesits save money
Thanks to the various housesits during this past year, we saved more than 10 weeks accommodation. This free lodging helped us cut down this part of our budget!

Average Daily Travel Expense: Per Country

This is our average daily spend breakdown per country – both for us as a couple and what that averages out to per person.

U.S.A. Per Couple $90.00 £60.00
  Per Person $45.00 £30.00
       
Mexico Per Couple $41.16 £26.91
  Per Person $20.58 £13.45
       
Belize Per Couple $108.00 £68.20
  Per Person $54.00 £34.10
       
Guatemala Per Couple $46.24 £29.25
  Per Person $23.12 £14.62
       
El Salvador Per Couple $48.10 £29.58
  Per Person $24.05 £14.79
       
Honduras Per Couple $57.36 £36.87
  Per Person $28.68 £18.43
       
Nicaragua Per Couple $63.63 £40.35
  Per Person $31.81 £20.17
       
Costa Rica Per Couple $53.24 £32.97
  Per Person $26.62 £16.49
       
Panama Per Couple $71.42 £43.92
  Per Person $35.71 £21.96
       
Germany Per Couple $52.82 £33.45
  Per Person $27.41 £16.73
       
Italy Per Couple $113.62 £68.83
  Per Person $56.81 £34.42

A few notes on these daily averages:

1. Belize was so high because the amazing tours available- snorkeling and caving – are quite costly, but very worth it. Food and hotels can be very cheap if you do your research.
2. Nicaragua was only so expensive because of our trip to the Corn Islands. Without that, our time there would have been dirt cheap.
3. Honduras would have been cheaper, but we were there over Christmas and New Years, so we had lots of justifications for splurging.
4. Costa Rica is really not as expensive as everyone thinks!
5. Renting a car in Italy makes it expensive – the car ($35 a day at the cheapest rate), the gas (avg. of $9 per gallon!) and the tolls on the Autostrada (roughly $6.50 for a 45 minute drive, $35 for a three hour drive from Milan to Lucca).

30 April marked our 1 year travel anniversary, and we took a look at our expenses so far – how much we have spent, where the money went, and what our average per day spend has been in each country.

Have you traveled long-term? How did our round-the-world trip budget compare to yours? Have you ever considered traveling long-term but thought you don’t have the budget? Did our budget help push you in the direction of long-term travel? We’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments below.

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6 months on the road – Our Travel Expenses

Nicaraguan Money Cordobas

October 30th marked our 6-month travel anniversary, and while we’re sharing our Travel Tops and Flops and reflection on ‘200 Days on the Road’ on our 200-days travel anniversary on 15 November, the six-month marker seemed the right time to take a look at our expenses so far – including how much we have spent, where the money went, and what our average per day spend has been in each country. Luckily, Dani keeps a very exact expenses sheet calculating our outgoings to the last centavo, with up-to-date exchange rates telling us each day just how much every hotel room, bus ride, and ice cream cone costs in British Pounds (the currency we earn), US Dollars and the local currency. Read on for our detailed 6 months travel budget:

Please note: Our daily spendings are meant to be used as a guide for future travelers, or as a comparison for those of you currently on the road. However, as we work while we travel, we are not stuck to a fixed budget which we will one day deplete. We might spend a little bit more than the average backpacker, but we are guessing that our expenses are quite average for digital nomads in Latin America. Our six months travel budget isn’t a shoestring budget, but it includes some splurges.

Expenses in the U.S.

When we left London for Las Vegas on 30 April, we had no idea how expensive the U.S. would be. Even with the strong British Pound lining our pockets, the U.S. was much pricier than we thought.

By far our most expensive country so far, we spent a mind-boggling $8,333.00 /£5,530.60 in those 70 days. Major expenses within this figure include both our flights from London to Las Vegas and L.A. to Mexico, plus an Enterprise rental car which we had for two months. Excluding these numbers, our actual daily spend was $4,628/£3,071.60, or roughly $1,356/£900 per person per month.

Transportation: Our trusty Chevy Aveo rental ran us $1700 / £1,128 (including optional $560 insurance), which averaged out to $28.33 / £18.80 per day. At first glance (and second, and third) it might seem a luxury, but without the car, we could never have explored the South West, or drive the classic Pacific Coast Highway from L.A. to San Francisco as well as from San Diego to Tucson, making this a totally necessary expense. We drove 5200 miles, and of course the cost of gas and parking fees also added up to be quite expensive.

six months travel budgetAccommodation: During the times we were not reviewing hotels or doing long-term housesits, we paid a higher price for accommodation than we originally expected, as many places that we visited did not have hostels. Dusty roadside motels were cheap ($29 – $39 / £18 – 25), while city center digs ran us upwards of $69. We paid a ridiculous $119 for a tent cabin (!) in Big Sur, and a last minute Holiday Inn Express was $109 in the three-hotel, no-vacancy town of Chinle where we holed up for the night during our visit to Canyon de Chelly in northern Arizona.

Average accommodation per night based on two sharing: $45/£29.

Tip: Accommodation costs might be higher in the US than in Latin America, but there are also incredible deals to be found online which are much harder to come by in the less deal-savvy neighbors to the south. Websites such as booking.com or lastminute.com allowed us to score excellent rates on hotels than just showing up ever did. On a few rare occasions we were able to negotiate a better rate on site.

6 months travel budgetFood: The occasional treat aside, our restaurant choices were of the roadside variety, cheap diners, fast food and the like. The average meal at a cheap diner cost around $25 for both of us. While house-sitting we were able to shop at the grocery store, spending an average of $100 per week during our two house sits.

Regardless of the relatively high costs of exploring the southwestern United States, we managed to do both Los Angeles and San Francisco on a shoestring and kept our spending lower by including house-sits and visiting friends.

Average per day per person: $45/£30 (including car).

Mexico

Our spending dropped significantly once we crossed the border into Mexico – in total we spent $3622.26/£2367.78 in 88 days.

Accommodation: In Mexico, we stayed in mix of hostels and budget hotels. The cheapest accommodation cost $12/£8 for both of us at one of our favorite places– La Candelaria in Valladolid. The most expensive room at Posada Ziga in Mazunte was $35 /£23.

6 months travel budgetAverage accommodation per night based on two sharing: $21/£15.

Food: Our meals in Mexico cost around $12/£8 for dinner for two, and breakfast for about $10.50/£6.90 for two people. As anyone who reads us often will know, however, inexpensive (and delicious!) street food was our main meal of choice and we rarely ate in restaurants.

Culture: Mexico is teeming with cultural options and we visited everything from museums to galleries to both Maya and Aztec ruins. The ruins all have a set price of 51 Pesos, or $3.95/£2.55 per person, with one exception: Chichen Itza, which costs around $14/£9 per person.

6 months travel budgetTransportation: Long haul bus travel in Mexico is much nicer, but also much more expensive than in Central America. You travel in relative style, but you pay for it. The most expensive overnight bus rides tend to cost around $31/£21 per person. The cheapest long-haul trips cost us each $8.50/£5. On average we paid $10/ £6.70 per person.

Average total cost in Mexico per person per day: $20.58/£13.45

Belize

We already knew through the grapevine that Belize was going to be more expensive than the rest of Central America (Lonely Planet suggests US$40 – $60 per day), but we were still surprised that costs were as high as they are for such a sparsely populated and economically struggling country like Belize (read our tips for Belize on a shoestring here). We could’ve lowered our six months travel budget considerably had we skipped Belize.

Accommodation: We stayed in fairly basic accommodation in Belize, no bells or whistles, but always private rooms.

The average cost was US$22.50/£14.20 for a double en-suite room.

Transportation: This is one low cost area for travelers in Belize. Chicken buses, which appear to be held together by masking tape and a lot of luck, cost next to nothing for long distance travel in Belize. A two hour bus ride from Belize City to San Ignacio, nearly completely cross country, costs only $3.50/£2.21 per person. Speed boats between the Cayes in the Caribbean costs about $10/£6.32 to go between them, and golf cart rental on Ambergris Caye costs around $35/£22.10 per day.

Food: Meals in a restaurant both on the Cayes and in San Ignacio cost around $20/£12.60 for two, including a beer or two here and there. Belize is not that big on street food, so sitting down and ordering is a must for your main meals of the day.

Adventure: We took advantage many of the adventurous activities available to visitors in Belize. Snorkeling with Harry and Steve (recommended, just ask around) on Caye Caulker cost US$40/£25.25 each for a full day, or US$20/£12.63. The ATM cave tour was $65 each (discounted). All of our fun over 11 days totals $348/£200.

Average Cost Per Person Per Day: $54/£34.10

Guatemala

Crossing the border into Guatemala after our expensive stay in Belize felt good, and our expenses have been much less here.

Accommodation: On average, we spend $18.43/£11.65 per night for a double room including breakfast. Dorms are cheaper for single travelers, but for anyone traveling with a partner, private rooms only run about Q10 or $1.25 more.

Transportation: Take a chicken bus, and this will be your cheapest expense in Guatemala. Long-distance bus travel by chicken bus costs around $4.00/£2.55 per person – the more comfortable 1st and 2nd class coaches are considerably more expensive – the overnight bus we took from Flores to Antigua was $29.50/£19.50 per person.

Food: You can eat like a king in Guatemala and easily stay on budget. A decent meal for two in a restaurant costs around $10/£6.60, though in Antigua, depending on the restaurant, this average can more than double. If you eat street food, you can eat for much less money, but to be honest, we didn’t love the street food in Guatemala.

Tikal: The highest expense in Guatemala was our trip to Tikal, which was around $66/£42.00 for both of us. This does not include accommodation in Flores, but does include the shuttle service to Tikal, the guide and entry fees.

On average, we have been spending $27.50/£17.58 per person per day, which might seem a bit high to some, but includes pricey medication for Dengue and Giardia, neither of which was cheap.

Total six months travel budget

In total, we spent around US$14,720/£9,646 for the two of us in 6 months, which includes all flights and public transportation, and more than two months in the U.S. We hope our next budget post in 6 months will be much less, with no major flights, hopefully a few more house-sits, and lower expenses in South America than we had for the first 70 days in the United States.

Total cost per person for 6 months: US$7,360/£4,823.00

We showed you ours… now you show us yours! We would love to hear about your budgets and expenses in the comments below to see how our spending compares with that of backpackers and digital nomads. What does your six months travel budget look like?

If you have tips on great deals, cheap but quality accommodation in the US, Mexico, Central America or South America, or other ways to save money, please do share as well!

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The Seven Main Villages Surrounding Lake Atitlán, Guatemala

Lake Atitlan Volcano San Pedro

Lake Atitlán has been described as the most beautiful lake in the world, considered a dangerous beauty one could lose themselves in. No matter which of the villages surrounding Lake Atitlan you visit, the views are stunning – the sprawling lake,  green mountains and the looming giant of the San Pedro Volcano. Seated on a kayak in the middle of the lake, you can even see the famously ever-erupting Volcan Fuego, also visible from equally far away Antigua. But is there one village that stands out? Which are the best villages around Lake Atitlan?

“Lake Como, it seems to me, touches on the limit of permissibly picturesque, but (Lake) Atitlán is Como with additional embellishments of several immense volcanoes. It really is too much of a good thing.” Aldous Huxley on Guatemala’s Lake Atitlán

where to stay lake atitlanIn our two weeks at Lake Atitlán, we explored several lakeside villages and found it surprising just how different the communities are. Lake Atitlán is mandatory on any Guatemala itinerary, but for those who are short on time or just want to find where you might ‘fit’, read on for a breakdown of the towns surrounding the lake, to help you decide where to stay on Lake Atitlan.

The seven best villages at Lake Atitlan

Panajachel – Buy souvenirs and eat Gringo food

Panajachel is easily accessible from Antigua or Guatemala City, most buses and shuttles end up here and all the boats to Lake Atitlán’s surrounding villages leave from Pana’s docks. As a result, Pana receives loads of tourists of all kinds – Guatemalan day-trippers, package tour groups and backpackers all pass through here. The original village is located up on the hill, whereas the main street towards the docks, Calle Santander, seems to be constructed exclusively for tourists. One market stall lines up next to another, and there are plenty of restaurants and hotels, including an all-inclusive resort right by the lake. This is where to stay at Lake Atitlan if you don’t want to take a boat across the lake.For a more authentic experience, stay somewhere in the ‘old’ town center, where there is a daily market. If you are not staying there, make the hike up there to visit the local market and to get a glimpse of everyday Mayan life. The Saturday artisan market, spreading from the top of Calle Santander down to the docks, brings bus loads of tour groups through Pana on weekends. Rumor has it that Guatemala souvenirs here in Pana are the cheapest in the country.

You can eat any international cuisine, rent kayaks, hike to the nearby village of Santa Catarina Palopo or visit the famous Sunday market in Solola – located on top of the mountain and the spot for breathtaking vistas.best villages lake atitlan

Where to eat in Panajachel:

  • Bombay (excellent international vegetarian cuisine), any of the restaurants right by the lake for cheap breakfast and stunning views
  • Café Moka at the south end of Calle Santander has a great selection of coffees and cakes, plus free wi-fi
  • Tuscani for Italian food
  • Las Chinitas has healthy food in a lush green setting
  • Head to Taquero Mucho to get your Mexican food fix

Where to stay in Panajachel:

  • Hotel El Sol is a short walk from the town center and has super cheap clean rooms (US$6)
  • Selina Atitlan – beautiful new hotel (opened in December 2018) that has both dorms (starting at US$14) and private rooms (from US$48). Close to the lake, and it has a lovely outdoor pool.
  • ABU hotel has dorms and private rooms and a lovely patio with hammocks
  • If you need a larger place, check out Villas Jucanya. They’re fully-equipped lakefront villas, including kitchen. A 3-bedroom villa is US$60.

San Pedro – Chill out, learn Spanish and eat gringo food

A 45 minute trip across the lake brings you to San Pedro. All the ingredients for a super chill out spot come together in San Pedro. There is international food galore (it is both cheap and mouth-watering), bars readily serve up cheap booze during long happy hours, there are plenty of places for a cheap massage, hot pools and spas to relax, and no one looks down their nose at those who wish to hang out in a hammock all day long. San Pedro is the most popular among the villages for backpackers, and the best village at Lake Atitlan to learn Spanish and spend a few weeks.There is enough to do for the more active backpackers – climb volcano San Pedro, go on a horseback ride, kayak around the lake, learn Spanish at one of the highly recommended Spanish schools, spend an afternoon in the gorgeous town center (pictured below) or hike to the neighboring village San Juan. San Pedro is a great place if you want to get some work done too. The large semi-permanent foreigner population has ensured that San Pedro has the best wi-fi at the lake – at hostels, bars and restaurants everywhere.

Where to eat in San Pedro La Laguna:

  • Hummus Ya (Israeli food, vegan and vegetarian friendly)
  • The Fifth Dimension (excellent vegetarian food)
  • Sababa Restaurant (international and Guatemalan dishes and fantastic views over the lake)
  • Italian Bakery (for your carb fix and good breakfast)

Where to stay in San Pedro La Laguna:

  • Sababa Resort – beautiful resort with an awesome swimming pool and patio (US$19 per night)
  • Shanti Shanti – solid rooms at a great price, breakfast included for US$16 a night
  • Amigos Resort has dorms and private rooms and stunning lake views from the rooftop terrace (dorm bed US$6, private room US$19)
  • El Delfin has spacious rooms, a lovely backyard, and a restaurant on-site (US$33 per double room, breakfast included)

where to stay lake atitlan

San Marcos – Meditate, do yoga, eat gringo food

The village of San Marcos, located on the northern shore of the lake, is a place to meditate, refresh your energy and, if you know how, cleanse your aura. The local Mayan inhabitants live high up in the village, separated from the hippies foreigners, who stay in the hotels around the dock.

Should a friendly looking foreigner not respond to your attempt at conversation, do not think them rude. They are currently taking part in their ‘silent week’, part of the program over at Piramides del Ka meditation centre reportedly the best of many such medi-yoga spots. San Marcos is the best village at Lake Atitlan for those who seek meditation, yoga, or a silent retreat.

For those whose auras need no cleansing,  hike up to the Indian’s Nose mountain summit for unparalleled  views over the lake, sunbathe at ‘the rocks’ or have a picnic at the ‘sacred place’ which also offers excellent vistas, but is not as high up as the Indian’s Nose.

Where to eat in San Marcos La Laguna:

  • Fe (yummy food in the center of town)
  • Il Giardino (vegetarian)
  • Circles Cafe & Bakery (amazing breakfast), Comedor Casa Juanita (traditional Guatemalan dishes with superb lake views),
  • Moonfish Cafe (international and Guatemalan dishes)

Where to stay in San Marcos La Laguna:

  • Casa Madera (best budget option – dorms are US$10 and private rooms start at US$13)
  • Lush Atitlan (beautiful rooms overlooking the lake. Rooms start at around US$33 per night)
  • Baba Yaga (gorgeous lakefront bungalows – perfect for a splurge. US$61 per night)
  • Anzan Atitlan, outside of town, is a divine option if you’re looking for a splurge. The property has a private beach, sun terraces, and room rates include a tasty breakfast (US$146 per night)

Note: There is only one ATM in San Marcos, but I recommend bringing some cash, in case it is out of service, which does happen occasionally.

Santiago – visit Maximon, buy souvenirs

The town of Santiago is the largest and most ‘native’ of all the towns around the lake. Located on Atitlán’s southern shore, Santiago is best known for being home to Maximon, Guatemala’s folk saint. As soon as you get off the boat, the local children will offer to bring you to Maximon’s house (he moves house every year). Make sure to bring donations: rum, cigarettes or simply cash are favorite offerings of Maximon.

In addition to the favored saint, Santiago offers great views of volcano San Pedro if you make your way up the hill to the church which sits on the end of a big, empty square. The church inside is lined with wooden saints who are dressed in new handmade clothes every year.

Most of the Maya in Santiago, including the men, still wear their traditional clothes. Though hotel space is limited, floods of daytrippers make for central souvenir market stalls on the main street starting at the dock.

Where to eat in Santiago Atitlan:

  • Pasteria y Cafe Lolita (coffee, pastries and wifi. Try the cinnamon rolls)
  • Quila’s (bar – great for beer, cocktails and bar food)
  • Cetcafe (coffee & crepes)
  • Restaurante El Mana (excellent seafood)

Where to stay in Santiago Atitlan:

  • Casa Josefa – new budget hotel right in the center of town with a small swimming pool, open since 2018. Double rooms are around US$22 per night
  • Hosteria Del Centro – basic rooms, centrally located. They offer both dorms and private rooms. Double rooms are US$22
  • Hotel Tiosh Abaj (10 mins walk from Santiago’s main square. Right on the lake, huge patio & gardens, outdoor pool. Rooms start at US$47 per night
  • Eco-Hotel Bambu (a bit outside of town, cozy bungalows made of carved stone and thatched roofs, plus private gardens, five mins from the lake (rooms from US$70 per night)

Santa Cruz – SUP, kayak, hang out under the radar

Santa Cruz is a small village between Jaibalito and San Marcos, and can only be reached by boat, which keeps visitor numbers low. A few hotels dot the shore, and the main village stretches up the hill behind them. There’s not much to do except hang out, relax or hike in the surrounding hills – or be active on the lake. There are several places that offer kayak and stand-up paddle board rentals. Hotel Isla Verde offers salsa classes on Fridays and daily movie nights, as well as yoga. Santa Cruz is the best village at Lake Atitlan for those who want to get away from other tourists for a while.best villages lake atitlan

Where to eat in Santa Cruz:

  • Cafe Sabor Cruceno (excellent Guatemalan food)
  • JC Bakery is a Maya-run restaurant in the center of the village
  • Restaurant Nimajay (organic restaurant with vegetarian options)

Where to stay in Santa Cruz:

Note: There is one ATM  in Santa Cruz, but I recommend bringing enough cash with you, in case it isn’t working.

where to stay lake atitlan

Jaibalito – find solitude

Other than a couple of hotels, the village of Jaibalito offers nothing for visitors. This makes it, along with San Juan, the most authentic (if not poorest) of Lake Atitlán’s villages. Wi-fi is limited. Mentioning you would like to go to Jaibalito at any of the docks usually means a trip to the popular and moderately luxurious La Casa del Mundo hotel near to Jaibalito. Secluded from the village (and everything else) the hotel has its own dock, and comes with a restaurant, hot pool, lake-view rooms and terraces to hang out. Jaibalito is the best village at Lake Atitlan for those looking for tranquility and serenity.

Where to eat in Jaibalito:

  • El Indigo is fantastic and close to the pier
  • Club Ven Aca has solid food and cocktails (plus lake views!)
  • Cafe El Escondido has good cheap Guatemalan food

Where to stay in Jaibalito:

  • Hotel Y Cafe La Casa del Mundo has its own dock and gorgeous lake views. Rooms are around $56 per night
  • Posada Jaibalito is the cheapest option right in the village.
  • Casa Pamakanya is an Airbnb that consists of three houses that sleep 10 – 13 guests, a 15 – 20 mins walk from Jaibalito. The houses are surrounded by lush gardens, fruit trees, and there are multiple patios and hammocks. Stairs lead down to a dock and kayaks are provided. Perfect if you’re traveling with friends or family and want nothing but peace and quiet for a few days. If you don’t have an Airbnb account yet, use my referral code to sign up and get up to $40 off your first booking.

Note: Jaibalito does not have an ATM either, cash only.

best villages lake atitlan

Santa Catarina Palopo – explore and hike off the tourist track

Santa Catarina is only 2.5 miles (four kilometers) south of Panajachel and makes a great day hike from Pana. There are several trinket vendors on the road down from the village square to the lake shore, and a few shops in town, but other than this is a town for locals and a great way to see exciting vibrant Lake life. From here, take a hike to San Antonio Palopo, six kilometers to the south and famous for its traditional clothes (especially of the men) and hot springs or hop in a pickup back to Pana. This village is the best village at Lake Atitlan when it comes to fancy hotels – you don’t really find much in terms of budget accommodation here, so you’ll be able to escape the backpacker crowds.where to stay lake atitlan

Where to eat in Santa Catarina Palopo:

  • Restaurante Palopo (lakefront restaurant)
  • Cafe TUK (coffee shop serving artisanal coffee)

Where to stay in Santa Catarina Palopo:

  • Villa Santa Catarina has a large outdoor pool (US$65)
  • Hotel Villas Balam Ya (Robinson Crusoe-esque boutique hotel with fabulous lakeviews and lush gardens, private dock, kayaks, hot tub. Outside of town on the road to Panajachel. Double rooms incl breakfast US$99)
  • Hotel Casa Palopo – beautiful spacious & stylish rooms, each one has a balcony and a stunning view over Lake Atitlan. Deluxe rooms are around US$221. The hotel is a short walk from town, but there is an on-site restaurant.
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Street food junkies on the hunt in Guatemala

Guatemala Banana & Strawberry Mix

The Globetrottergirls are street food junkies, and we were not afraid to shout it from the proverbial rooftops during our 11 week stay in Mexico last summer. Embracing the local cuisine, in its most local forms, deepens the traveler’s relationship with the country and its culture, and it is fun to sample foods from food stands which essentially form an unofficial outdoor buffet in central parks throughout Latin America. Guatemala was no exception, of course: We couldn’t wait to eat our way through all of the street food in Guatemala. We were especially excited when we arrived in Antigua and discovered street food vendors galore lined up in front of La Merced church. This excitement was quickly put in check, however, as street food in Guatemala is very meaty. Lucky for the veggies, however, there are also loads of vegetarian options. Find a round-up of our street food favorites below:

Must-try vegetarian street food in Guatemala

Pupusas

This El Salvadorian staple is, as it turns out, also a very popular street food in Guatemala. The thick corn tortillas are stuffed with either refried beans, cheese, a bean-cheese combo, or cooked pork. A marinated cabbage and tomato salsa are added on top. Despite their popularity in Guatemala, this street food doesn’t begin to compare to the delicious originals made in El Salvador, where the cheese is tastier and the shape and quality are far better than most in Guatemala. But if you’re veggie and in a hurry, a pupusa will fill you up easily. Price: Q12/US $1.50.street food guatemala

Elote

Another typical dish is elote, or corn on the cob. In Guatemala, elote it is not served with mayonnaise and chili powder as in Mexico, but rather salsa, salt and sometimes lime. Corn is the basis for the Guatemalan diet, and this cheap and not entirely unhealthy snack can be eaten any and everywhere. Price: Q10/US $1.25

Tacos

The word ‘taco’ in Mexico and Mexican cuisine means something different to what the word means in Guatemala, where a ‘taco’ is similar to the Mexican ‘Flauta’. One major difference is that in Mexico, corn tortillas are stuffed, rolled and then deep fried. In Guatemala, the rolled corn tortillas are first deep fried, and then stuffed with either potatoes or meat. This makes a difference as they are usually stuffed with more inside than in Mexico. As almost all the street food in Guatemala, tacos are topped with cabbage and cheese. No matter how they serve ‘em, or what they call them, tacos or flautas are one of our favorite street food items. For the best we found in Guatemala, head to Lake Atitlan’s village of San Pedro la Laguna, where, just up the road from the Pana dock, a little street vendor sells the best tacos in the country.*  Price: Q8/US$1

*the exclusive opinion of Globetrottergirls and though not official, trust us in judging their awesomeness.street food guatemala

Tostadas

Tostadas are very similar to the Mexican ones – a crunchy, fried corn tortilla topped with refried beans (though in Guatemala, these are black beans, not pinto beans) and/or delicious guacamole plus lots of lettuce, tomoatoes, onions, white cheese ‘powder’, plus beets, cabbage, and, sometimes, a slice of a hard-boiled egg on top. A salad on a tostada for under a buck! Price Q6/ US$0.75

Rellenitos

Literally meaning ‘little fillings’, a rellenito is just that – boiled/fried plantains stuffed with refried black beans and sometimes cheese. Mixing the sweet plantains with the savory black beans might seem a little exotic at first, but plantains and black beans are major elements in both breakfast and dinner dishes and it is very common to eat them together. These little wonders are delicious, filling and very veggie friendly. Price: Q6/$0.75

street food guatemala

Corn Tamales

Tamales are familiar to any fan of Mexican food, but the Guatemalan version varies slightly. These tamales are just plain old tamale corn flour base with pieces of corn inside, wrapped in a large green leaf. They normally come all wrapped up, dry and with no sauce. Dani hates corn tamales, and won’t eat them. They are certainly not my food of choice, but they do the trick, plus they are everywhere. Price: Q10/$1.25

Buñuelos and other sweet street food

Street food in Guatemala is big on sweets. There are the multi-colored popcorn balls, biscuit rings, something similar to peanut brittle, and loads and loads of donuts, but Dani’s absolute favorite are the Buñuelos. We’ve come across this word a few times to describe very different dishes. In Guatemala, fried dough balls, usually three, are served up with lots of warm, if not overly watery, syrup. Apparently they are a typical Christmas dish, but we found them already in early October. Price: Q10/US $1.25 for threeFor the meat-lovers out there, the street food options in Guatemala triple. The meaty varieties include salchichas (sausages), chicharrones (fried pork skin), cheveres – hot dogs (apparently there is a delicious type with avocado). What’s more, cheap fried chicken, burgers and fries rule the streets of Guatemala. Sandwiches are another popular item, with baguette-like white bread stuffed with lettuce, mayo, onion and usually fried, breaded pork.guatemala street foodIt has been especially recommended to us that you sample the garnachas, small fried corn tortillas which are stuffed with shredded meat and cheese and usually topped with cabbage, and the chile rellenos. The smaller sweet red peppers (similar to bell peppers, but smaller) are stuffed with beef, dipped in egg and deep fried, squeezed flat and then put on French white bread, to which cabbage, beets, carrots and a special sauce are added. Of all the meaty street food, we most wanted to try these chile rellenos, but there is never a cheese variety, always meat only.street food guatemala

Before you try street food in Guatemala

We did find eating street food in Guatemala a bit riskier than in other countries in terms of belly aches and less ladylike bowel issues. It is especially important in Guatemala to pay attention to who is eating where – seek out the popular food stands. If 20 locals are surrounding the street food vendor, jump in line there too. Locals want clean, healthy food as much as visitors do. Do not feel deterred by this warning, but do make sure you choose your street food wisely.

street food guatemala

Have we missed any delicious Guatemalan vegetarian street food items? Feel free to make suggestions for others in the comments below. What are your favorite Guatemalan foods?

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The Corn Islands: Big Corn vs. Little Corn

East beach Little Corn Island

So you’ve read our article on Nicaragua’s Corn Islands and have decided that the off-the-beaten-path Caribbean adventure is indeed worth a visit. The key question now is which of the two islands, Big Corn or Little Corn is right for you.south beach on Big Corn IslandLocated 50 miles off Nicaragua’s Caribbean coast, these two islands are nowhere near the better known Caribbean islands, but still have the same stunning features –white-sand beaches, crystal clear water, breathtaking sunsets and palm trees as far as the eye can see. What sets the Corn Islands apart from the more well-known Caribbean islands is the lack of 5* luxury resorts or fancy spa hotels and forget about an afternoon of cocktails at a swim up bar.

What sets the two islands apart is the fact that while Big Corn has an airport, roads, cars, international cuisine options and 24-hour electricity, just a 25 minute boat ride away Little Corn Island is a very remote island where aside from getting out on the water, the only thing to do is relax.

Little Corn Island

Getting to Little Corn is the only real adventure; the rest is truly about relaxation. Little Corn is reached first by flying in to Big Corn from Nicaragua’s capital, Managua, making your way down to the ‘dock’ and jumping in a simple motor boat which takes you to the smaller island. The day before we traveled to Little Corn, one of the boats had capsized at sea, and although rescue boats were immediately at hand and no one was hurt. Pack your belongings water-tight and hold on, because if you are up for that little adventure, you will land on a tiny island without any motorized vehicles and a laid-back way of life.

Little Corn ferryHere, wheelbarrows are the common means of transport. Don’t expect paved roads (although on the West side of the island there is a paved footpath), and there’s no electricity either – at least not before 2pm each day, so switch off your Blackberries, pull up a hammock and get ready to relax for a few days.

Walk around the 1.6 sq km island in about two hours, and cross from west to east side in about 10 to 15 minutes. During the day, you might meet Frank, who will climb up a tree and cut down a coconut for you for a buck. You can do it yourself for free, as did fellow vacationers we met here.

Frank cutting coconuts on Little Corn IslandIf crossing at night, bring a flashlight, as the main east-west path is actually a trail through the jungle, although the closer to the beach you get, the path is lit by the millions of stars in the sky. Take a boat trip out off the coast and snorkel, or join the many avid divers who enjoy the great diving off the coast of the Corn Islands.

In terms of food, don’t expect anything fancy. Shops sell basic essentials and there are a few simple restaurants along the main path on the West side of the island, including a pizza place, a café with muffins and quesadillas, and a few places that serve cheap, local food. The island doesn’t have an ATM (yet) and cash is essential, so make sure you get enough cash while you are on Big Corn Island.

Huevos Rancheros on Little Corn Island

Who might prefer Little Corn Island?

  • Adventurous travelers who don’t mind packing a flashlight and insect repellent when going on vacation
  • Travelers who like to get to know a place and its people well, and meet other travelers
  • Families with kids looking for family-friendly adventure
  • People who don’t mind basic accommodation, are not freaked out by the occasional spider or mind eating at local hole-in-the-walls

Fresh catch on Little Corn Island

Where to stay on Little Corn Island

We loved that even with quite a few hotels for such a small island, it felt like an unexplored piece of land in the middle of the ocean. The beaches are gorgeous and yet completely empty, the people are friendly and you can get a good feeling of how the islanders live rather than being tucked away in a resort somewhere.los delfinos hotel room Little Corn Island

  • Grace’s – Cool Spot for shoestring travelers with no fear of insects (US$15 for a beachfront bungalow for 2 people with shared bathroom, US$25 with private bathroom, no wi-fi)
  • Carlito’s for travelers who don’t need much comfort (Beachfront bungalows with private bathroom US$30, no wi-fi)
  • Hotel Los Delfinos for the budget conscious (US$50 for a double room with hot shower, free wi-fi)
  • Little Corn Beach & Bungalow for a bit more comfort (from US$32 + 15% tax for a double room with hot shower, free wi-fi) You can read our full review here.
  • Yemaya Island Hideaway – The most exquisite hotel on Little Corn Island. The bungalows are stylish and spacious and each one comes with its own private plunge pool. Pure luxury! Rates start at US$98, depending on the season.

corn island hotels

Big Corn Island

Coming from the mainland, Big Corn feels tiny, but returning here from Little Corn, the island earns its name. The population is 7 times that of Little Corn, and yet Big Corn still feels sleepy. The island is still walkable at 6sq km, although here hopping in a cheap cab makes much more sense to get from A to B. You can easily cut across the airport runway whenever the two planes that fly in and out each day are gone.

big corn island beach Despite the more developed infrastructure on Big Corn, there is not an awful lot to do here either. No shopping, little entertainment and relatively few hotels scattered around the isle. The electricity is on 24 hours a day, which makes getting online easier, and lazing around watching TV possibly an all-day activity.

Diving and snorkeling are possible from here, as is cruising around in a golf cart. enjoy the fabulous beaches, drink cocktails while watching the sun set on Southwest Bay beach, where the Arenas hotel even has white leather lounge sofas right on the beach. Nicaragua is big into baseball, so fans of the sport (or anyone looking for entertainment) can head to the well-built baseball stadium which turns into the place to be for the entire island once a week.

Sunset on Big Corn IslandBig Corn Island does not feel as secluded as Little Corn and is missing that deserted island feeling. Whereas on Little Corn, you can spend your days walking through the luscious green coconut palm tree woods to find small beaches around the island, Big Corn has only a few beaches (though bigger than the ones on LC). In fact, the whole north part of the island seems rather rough and not suitable for swimming.

The food choices on Big Corn are considerably more expensive, but the island has everything from Caribbean and Indian curries, to Italian, vegetarian and top sea food choices.

Who might prefer Big Corn Island?

  • Travelers who prefer a little bit more luxury and easier travel options.
  • Those who prefer taxis or golf carts rather than doing everything on foot.
  • Tourists who just want to relax in one place rather than doing much exploring.

south beach big corn island

Where to stay on Big Corn Island

The range of hotels is wider on Big Corn, with more shoestring cheapies as well as a higher level of luxury.

  • Beachview Hotel for shoestring travelers (US$15 for a double with shared bathroom, US$25 with private bathroom, TV and AC)
  • Martha’s B&B – great rooms, brand new TVs and delicious breakfast (US$50 + 15% tax, free wi-fi)
  • Arenas Hotel for a comfortable beach vacation (rooms starting at US$75 for 2 people, free wi-fi)
  • Casa Canada for the most luxurious getaway and the only infinity pool on the island (US$65 + 15% tax, free wi-fi, including breakfast)

Marthas B&B Big Corn IslandHave you visited the Corn Islands? Which island do you prefer: Little Corn or Big Corn? Where would you go for the perfect Caribbean vacation?

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Is it safe to travel in Costa Rica?

costa rica pura vida

A few years ago I would have answered the question of safety in Costa Rica with a sound YES, but after my latest trip at the end of 2018, I feel a little bit more wary about wholeheartedly recommending Costa Rica as a travel destination – especially to a solo female traveler – than I would have when I visited Costa Rica for the first time, as part of a Central America backpacking trip in 2011, and then again for a two-month housesit in a seaside villa in 2012.

My experiences traveling Costa Rica

The first time I visited Costa Rica, I entered the country overland from Nicaragua, having just traveled through Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala. I had sketchy moments in all of those countries, including gunshots outside the hotel I was locked up in in Honduras’ capital Tegucigalpa, an attempted bag slashing in Guatemala, and a being told to put my guidebook away in San Salvador, to not clearly out myself as a tourist.

Back then, arriving in Costa Rica after traveling through several poor and politically unstable countries felt like arriving in North America. Just a few miles south of the border we were able to drink the tap water again, there were hot showers, ATMs abound, and American hotel and restaurant chains including Hard Rock Café and Taco Bell. While I had always felt a little tense and ‘on guard’ while traveling through Costa Rica’s neighboring countries to the north, this tension immediately eased and I started to let my guard down. Costa Rica felt so much safer than the rest of Central America!

is it safe to travel in Costa Rica

When I revisited the country a couple of months ago for a 3-week road trip, I didn’t feel as safe, however. I was already more vigilant and aware of my surroundings, and I had bought travel insurance before the trip. My pre-trip research had led me to several Tripadvisor forum threats and articles about tourists getting their rental cars broken in, armed robberies, tourists raped and two female tourists were raped and murdered just a few months before my visit. In January 2018, an entire tourist bus was robbed at gunpoint on the Caribbean Coast – something that you usually only hear happening in Guatemala or Nicaragua. There had been enough incidents in Costa Rica recently for the UK to publish a travel advisory.

And as my Costa Rica trip was coming to an end, news of a female tourist that had gone missing slowly broke. As I returned to the U.S., I watched the story of the missing girl unfold, which eventually turned into the horrible news of the third female tourist murdered in Costa Rica in 2018. It was her last night in the country, and she was supposed to fly back to Florida the next day, spending only one night by herself in an Airbnb after vacationing with her sister-in-law. She wasn’t even a solo traveler, just one night by herself after a girls trip that should’ve been her birthday trip, just as this was my birthday trip, too.

is it safe to travel in Costa Rica
is it safe to travel in Costa Rica

Is Costa Rica becoming too dangerous for female travelers? asked The Costa Rica Star a few days ago, stating that all of the female travelers who were killed while vacationing in Costa Rica “were seasoned, well-traveled females, who nonetheless wound up as victims of murderers and predators.”

I know that a lot of travelers, especially female travelers, will now rethink their travel plans to Costa Rica, which is why I wanted to talk about my own experiences traveling Costa Rica and how safe I felt there, and also share some safety travel tips for Costa Rica with you.

It is difficult for me to say ‘Go to Costa Rica anyway!’ or ‘Stay away from Costa Rica’. Because I myself have traveled to several countries or cities where other travelers had bad experiences, but I personally had a great time. In Ecuador, I went to a beach town where two female travelers from Argentina had been murdered the year before. I visited to Koh Tao, which had made news for several tourist murders. I traveled to Colombia on my own after reading a fellow female traveler’s horror story of getting robbed at gunpoint. And that trip turned out to be one of my best trips of all time.

While I feel that the murders in Costa Rica are still isolated cases (they were not connected to another), I don’t think they should be completely left out of the picture when planning a trip to Costa Rica – no matter if it’s solo, on a girls trip or with a boyfriend. I strongly recommend to take safety precautions if you are planning to travel by yourself, look through travel forums on TripAdvisor or Lonely Planet to find the most recent safety information.

Before sharing some safety tips, I wanted to point out that you should take into consideration that crime is not the only safety issue in Costa Rica – there are a number of non-crime related safety issues in Costa Rica, that you should consider, too:

Natural hazards in Costa Rica

VOLCANO ERUPTION: Costa Rica is home to five active volcanoes and over 200 dormant volcanic structures, and volcanic eruptions are a common occurrence. It is rare that people die during an eruption, but it has happened, and an eruption can effect your trip and the places you’re able to visit.

EARTHQUAKES: Costa Rica is also sitting on the edge of the Pacific Rim’s Ring Of Fire which means earthquakes are common. I myself have experienced several earthquakes in Costa Rica, which is not a pleasant experience, and again, can affect your trip if roads and other infrastructure are damaged during an earthquake.

MONSOON RAIN: Monsoon rains are quite intense in Costa Rica, and in 2018 they led to several fatalities involving tourists. A newly-wed man who was on his honeymoon with his wife was swept away and died when the couple got caught in a flash flood, and four Americans, part of a 13-people bachelor weekend, drowned when they went rafting in a river that turned into a deadly torrent after heavy rains.

Monsoon rains can also affect your trip if they cause travel delays, landslides that cause road closures, and limited activities, so make sure to check the weather for the month you’re planning to visit. July – October are usually the rainiest months, but this year, it rained well into November, which made driving during our road trip dangerous at times.

Crocodiles

Believe it or not, but Costa Rica takes the #3 spot in the ranking of countries where tourists are likely to be attacked / bitten by a crocodile, according to a nature guide I took a tour with on this last trip. We encountered crocodiles in several locations, including a close encounter in the swamps of Cahuita National Park. There has been a growing number of crocodiles in recent year, so don’t underestimate their speed and how close you can get to them. Crocodile sightings on popular surf beaches have also increased.

is it safe to travel in Costa Rica

Safety advice in Costa Rica

Looking at the bigger picture, I think that natural hazards are much more prevalent than crime, especially murder and rape, and tourist-targeted crimes in general, but be aware that petty theft and pickpocketing are not uncommon in Costa Rica.

Here are some safety tips for Costa Rica:

Avoid carrying lots of cash

Since pickpocketing can happen, especially when you take buses around the country or in San Jose, I’d advice you to not carry around too much cash, and while traveling in between cities, have it in a safe place on your body (I am using both a money belt and pickpocket-proof tanktops with hidden pockets). Have your cash in several places, not just one.

Debit / Credit Cards

Costa Rica has become much more receptive to card payments since my last visit – take advantage of that and don’t carry around hundreds of dollars in cash. If you lose your debit or credit card, you can cancel them quickly, but if you lose $500 in cash, you won’t get them back.

Valuables

This should go without saying, but don’t flash your valuables. An iPhone, a tablet or an expensive digital camera are very attractive to a lot of people, especially those living in small beach towns without access to the newest gadgets or the funds to buy them. Don’t leave your valuables out of sight when you’re at the beach, and have your backpack always on you when you travel on buses, don’t ever put them in the overhead compartment.

Thieves are very clever and if you are approached by someone and something feels off, it might be a spiel to distract you so that they can get to your valuables.

Taxis

There are plenty of unofficial taxis in Costa Rica – if you do take taxis, make sure that you take an official taxi (including the airport!). Taxi robberies have occurred in Costa Rica.

Rental Car Theft

Car break-ins are anything but uncommon in Costa Rica, so make sure to never leave any valuables in your car, even when you’re leaving the car only for a short while. If you are in transit and stop for a meal somewhere along the way, I recommend covering your suitcases or using a manned car park.

Travel Insurance

After having our beach bungalow broken into in Colombia a couple of years ago, I have become much more diligent about buying travel insurance. Better safe than sorry. Make sure to take down serial numbers of all the electronics you’re bringing to Costa Rica (tablet, camera, phone, etc) – most insurance companies require the serial numbers if you file a claim.

Adventure Travel Activities

Since Costa Rica is known as an adventure travel destination, make sure that the insurance package you purchase covers the activities you’re planning to do. After carefully reading the small print of the insurance company I usually use, WorldNomads, I noticed that ziplining, snorkeling, tubing and white water rafting were covered under their Standard package, but diving and abseiling were only covered in the more expensive Explorer package. Check beforehand if you need additional coverage for the activities you’re planning to do.

Safety tips for solo female travelers in Costa Rica

Trust your instincts

First and foremost, always follow your instincts. If something feels off, you are most likely right about it. The sad thing is that Stefanie, the girl that was murdered in Costa Rica last month, knew something wasn’t right and texted her friend that the place she was staying at felt sketchy – but it was too late. If you feel uncomfortable in a hostel or Airbnb, leave. That goes especially for remote bungalows and cabins.

Inform people of your whereabouts

I have to admit that I am particularly bad with this when I travel alone – I visited a remote village in the Amazon, a 2-hour boat ride away from the closest town, and without any internet or cell phone network, without telling anyone, and jumped on the back of a motorcycle with a stranger not once but twice in the Philippines – without telling anyone. I’ve gotten better with informing people where I am and what activities I’m doing, and I have also started using my cell phones location services – see below.

Use your smartphone’s location services

This is a great way for people to locate you should you go missing or get hurt during a hike, unable to move. Most people dislike these services and don’t want the  tech companies that use location services, but for safety reasons while traveling alone they can be useful, and my family is always relieved when they can spot me on the map somewhere. The New York Times published a useful article last year when and when not to use location services on your smartphone.

Use your phone for more than just taking selfies in the waves 😉

Know basic self defense moves

If you do travel alone, it doesn’t hurt knowing some basic self defense moves, and be it something basic like how to use your key as a weapon, in case of an attack. It is sad that we live in a world where we always have to be alert, and even though I find that most people are good, I can’t deny that there are bad people in the world and again – better safe than sorry. If you cannot afford a self-defense class, check out these videos on Youtube:  

Airbnb vs Hotel / Hostel

Considering that the last girl murdered in Costa Rica was staying in an Airbnb – and in a seemingly safe one, in a gated apartment complex with a security guard (who turned out to be a sexual predator / her killer), I’m a bit cautious about recommending Airbnb’s to solo travelers right now, even though I myself stayed in one (an easily accessible beach bungalow without security guard, cameras, etc) and had no problems whatsoever. If you do prefer vacation rentals over hotels, just make sure to read the description and reviews carefully and only book a place that you feel 100% comfortable with. And if you get there and things don’t look as expected or / and you’re feeling uneasy – don’t be afraid to leave early. Remember that hotels and hostels do have the advantage of having a receptionist / staff around, which might give you more piece of mind than the solitude that comes with an Airbnb.

Do your research

A quick Google search is the first thing I always do when I travel somewhere – and even just putting ‘Costa Rica’ into the search box and clicking on the ‘NEWS’ tab will show you recent events in Costa Rica. Many things like crocodile attacks or earthquakes don’t make international news, and even the most recent murder, which made news in the U.S. because the girl was a U.S. citizen, wasn’t reported in Europe. If you google the specific place you’re planning to visit, you’ll get more detailed news about that town, and I also recommend reading forums like Tripadvisor’s for the latest travel news. When I traveled around Colombia, where I felt a little uneasy in the beginning, I also always talked to other solo travelers, asking them about their experiences and how safe they felt on buses, etc.

Be cautious when venturing off the beaten path

If you are like me, you want to get off the beaten path, but if you are a solo traveler, keep in mind that safety is a bigger issue than it is for solo male travelers. If you are planning to visit lesser popular places such as Tortuguero (where one female tourist was murdered in 2018) or the Osa Peninsula, try to find another traveler to team up with. If you feel confident traveling alone, remember to inform someone of your plans.

Don’t visit the beach alone at night

…and also not with someone you just met. The female traveler who was killed in Santa Teresa, a popular surf spot on the Pacific coast, was walking the beach with another female traveler when the women were attacked by two men (the other girl was able to escape).

In Puerto Viejo, the main tourist hot spot on the Caribbean coast, we were offered drugs on a daily basis, and some of the guys who tried to sell us drugs seemed rather sketchy. In December 2018, a male photographer was murdered at night on the beach in Puerto Viejo when he got up early to photograph the sunrise.

is it safe to travel in Costa Rica

Is it safe to travel in Costa Rica?

So, would I say it is safe to travel in Costa Rica? I still think that Costa Rica is still the safest country in Central America, and I don’t think you should be put off by the recent murders, which are, as I mentioned before, still isolated cases. It is important, however, to be aware of the fact that crime and yes, even murder, do exist in Costa Rica, and to always be on guard.

I personally was more afraid of the natural hazards that I listed, but because I was aware of the recent tourist murders, I was much more aware of my surroundings when I went for solo runs on the beach (the Spanish girl murdered in August 2018 in Tortuguero was killed while out on a run) or when I stayed in a beach bungalow without a proper gate.

That said: Did I have an amazing vacation? Absolutely. Would I go back to Costa Rica? In a heartbeat!

Remember that nearly 3 million people travel to Costa Rica every year, and the number of tourists affected by crime or accidents is diminutive, considering how many travelers the country welcomes every year.

Tourism is a huge part of Costa Rica’s economy, so the government does as much as possible to keep the country and especially foreign visitors safe. There’s an entire section of the police dedicated to tourists, and after the recent tourist murders, police presence was increased in popular tourist destinations. As I mentioned above – natural hazards or theft or an accident are probably more likely to happen on a trip to Costa Rica than assault or murder, so make sure to research the right travel insurance for you.

Is Costa Rica safe? Further reading:

Here are some great articles and websites I found while I was researching this article:

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Hotel Tip Of The Week: B&B Casa 69 in San Jose, Costa Rica

hotel tip of the week

A trip to Costa Rica is about spotting incredible wildlife, surfing perfect waves and soaking up the sun and the capital does not reflect the wonders that the rest of the country has to offer. San Jose lacks the colonial charm of other Central American cities and unfortunately fails to fill the space with a modern, chic vibe. The result is a practical city that most travelers use to transfer in and out of on their way to the beaches, volcanoes and the airport. But sitting up on the roof terrace at Casa 69, watching the lights twinkle out and up into the mountains beyond the city managed to make even San Jose feel pretty magical.costa rica casa 69 san jose terrace at nightDay and night, Casa 69 Bed and Breakfast feels like a refuge from the city and feels more like a home than a hotel.  Entering the yellow walled property through a blue metal door off a side alley puts guests straight on a walkway in what feels like a lush green jungle garden, and leads into a living room with a large L-shaped couch and arm chairs to sink into, a big TV and a computer and a printer as though in someone’s private home. Across the hall there is a dining room with a dark wood table and shelves with maps, pamphlets and guide books. The check-in is in here, at what is the kitchen counter. The breakfast nook is cosy, bright yellow room where from 7-10am, the breakfast of coffee, tea, bread, butter, jam and fruits is served each morning. Heartier breakfast meals are available for around $5 each.

costa rica casa 69 san jose restaurantOur room was all the way up at the top on the roof, and we had those great mountain views from our bed. The black and white comforter and sequin pillows felt a little flamboyant (I go for big fluffy pillows and gluttonous amounts of comfort) but the king-size bed felt amazing after a long travel day. While the room extends that feeling of staying at a ‘friends’ house, the en-suite bathroom brings value to the room, with its recently renovated feel, excellent shower, pedestal sink, great use of space and crisp, clean design. The hotel’s Wi-Fi wasn’t great though. It works best nearest the router, which means some rooms get a great signal, others get none. Ours was intermittent at best.

costa rica casa 69 san joseLooking out at the city beyond, watching the thick rain clouds pour over the mountains in the afternoon and clear up by night fall feels great, though at some point the intense coils of sharp metal wire and wrought iron bars bring back the reality of the city beyond the walls of the hotel. San Jose is not a particularly dangerous place, and we felt perfectly safe walking into central San Jose to the Paseo Colon pedestrian area, a 20 minute walk from the hotel passing  the national museum, a tourist market, churches and restaurants along the way. Casa 69 is just across from the Nicaraguan embassy, a minute from an Irish rock pub, and around the corner from a typical Costa Rican ‘soda’ serving up typical Tico food and a Pizza Hut for travelers in need of fast and easy comfort food.

costa rica casa 69 san jose We left at 5am the next morning and the night manager was up and happy to call us a cab, just as had been promised the night before. This was the first gay-owned B&B we had stayed at in Central America, and we were impressed with what a well-oiled machine it is, with friendly owners and staff all around, plus several cats and puppies to warm even the coldest of hearts.

Stand Out Feature: King Size Bed

This isn’t the most original, and honestly, the rooftop views are pretty stellar. But the large bed was unexpected and felt extravagant. It is also comforting to know about a dependable, comfortable place to stay in San Jose for all those times we transfer through this major travel hub.

costa rica casa 69 san jose pillows

Room for Improvement: Security and a suggestion

Our rooftop room had sliding glass doors, which were great for floor to ceiling views, and then a wrought iron gate which closed and locked in front of the doors. But the sliding glass door itself did not lock and could easily be opened. Granted, a thief would have be pretty wiry to get in under the last wrought iron bar and into the room, plus pretty sneaky to make it into the house, through the living room, kitchen, up three flights of stairs and to that door to begin with, but I want my door to lock no matter what.

A second suggestion is regarding the breakfast element of the Bed & Breakfast. The nature of travel to San Jose means that many guests are likely up and on their way to a bus or the airport before the 7am breakfast time. The owners knew we were leaving early and a couple had left the day before at 4:30am. Because breakfast is included in the room rate, I’d like to see Casa 69 (and all B&Bs for that matter) up their game a bit and offer a takeaway breakfast bag with a bit of bread and butter/jam and a coffee to go.

Overall: Casa 69 in San Jose

Casa 69 is a friendly, stable spot to stay in San Jose, perfect for arriving to or leaving from for long flights or bus rides and a stay of a week or so would allow guests a sense of home in the Costa Rican capital.

casa 69 in san jose costa rica
Location:
Casa 69,  69 calle 25 , Barrio California, San Jose (80 meters south of the Embassy of Nicaragua, yellow house, right hand, house # 69)
Price: Starting at $45.00; breakfast included
LGBT Friendly: Definitely (gay-owned)
Digital Nomad Friendly: Iffy – Wi-Fi connection better downstairs
Amenities: Free wi-fi, complimentary breakfast, rooftop terrace with sun chairs, patio and big lounge room on the ground floor
Website: 
www.casa69.com Casa 69 on Facebook

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