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Tops and Flops of 1000 Days of Travel: Days 901-1000

Dani and Jess in Santiago

We reflected on 1000 days of travel yesterday, and today we’re looking back at the best and the worst moments of the last 100 days in Costa Rica, Argentina and Chile (including food!) and we give travel recommendations for Buenos Aires and Santiago for your next visit to these South American capitals.

Top travel moments

Spending our 1,000th day at a rooftop pool party in Santiago

We had plenty of moments in the last 100 days we could add, but there was something so perfect about watching the sunset on the top of GEN hotel, where everyone from the Dakar rally are now staying. We met locals and fellow foreigners, drank champagne and had an exquisite evening.

Santiago sunset rooftop

Assimilating to life in Buenos Aires

It was hard to choose just one moment, but as you can see from our post 33 Things We Love about Buenos Aires we jumped right into life in the city. We made a lot of friends, toured the sights, explored neighborhoods, ate at loads of different restaurants and soaked up as much of the unique culture as possible.

Favorite places

Buenos Aires, Argentina

It’s been a long time since we felt so strongly about a place, so it should come as no surprise that, even if we visited 20 cities in the last 100 days, Buenos Aires would still sit comfortably right on top.

buenos aires argentinaArenal, Costa Rica

In between our housesit in Costa Rica and our flight to Buenos Aires, we fit in a nice holiday in the La Fortuna area of Costa Rica, also known as Arenal after the looming volcano seen from just about everywhere in town. With the exception of an extended stay on the Osa Peninsula, we thought we knew Costa Rica backwards and forwards, but it turns out we absolutely loved the entire area here, with its massive waterfalls, great hiking in the national park, laid-back mountain vibe, and of course, our splurge at the Tabacon hot springs.

Most disappointing place(s)

Nosara, Costa Rica

Ah, well, you can’t love everywhere, and Nosara Beach just doesn’t quite do it for us. This is a surfer’s paradise, with consistent left-breaking waves, but for relaxation the beaches here leave much to be desired. It was also low season while we were here, so many of the restaurants were closed, but this is also one of those spots where the presence of gringo expats (we lived in what is honestly called the ‘American Sector’) has driven up prices so that value for money is hard to come by here. That said, we still had an amazing time here, enjoyed some of the most beautiful sunsets we have ever seen, long walks on the beach with our dog, and last but not least our own infinity pool.

nosara costa rica

Worst travel moments

The Toxic Cloud

That’s right. Completely unbeknownst to us, a fire in the port of Buenos Aires released toxic pesticides into the air for over two hours one morning and because we did not watch the news, I sat with the window open, working away in the living room, curious about the putrid smell but focused on editing the final draft of Break Free. The result – some pretty hefty skin irritation that looked and itched like chicken pox and lasted for three weeks.

Top travel mishaps

No travel mishaps in the last 100 days! Let’s see if we can make it through another 100 days without any mishaps.

Top food moments

Pizza in Buenos Aires

The pizzas in Buenos Aires are not only our top food moment of the last 100 days, but one of the last 1000 days!

pizzas in buenos aires

Travel recommendations

Take a free walking tour

If you are subscribed to our newsletter, you already know that we have become big fans of free walking tours recently. Although the tours are free, the guides work for tips, which makes them eager to impress you with expansive knowledge and enthusiastic conversation. We usually avoid big tour groups, but in Buenos Aires we decided to explore our neighborhood with BA Free Tours, and even though we had seen many of the places already, it was well worth it to learn such in-depth details of Argentinian culture and the story behind places in the ‘hood. We even went on a second tour of the main sights through BA Free Tours as well.

Here in Santiago, we opted for a tour of two neighborhoods that are further away from the tourist trail, Barrio Yungay and Barrio Brazil, and we got to know places we would have never found on our own, including the incredible Peluqueria Francesa, an old-fashioned barber shop with a French restaurant next door.

Peluqeria Francesa SantiagoWe were excited to discover that there are great free tours now worldwide: For Europe and beyond, check out Sandeman’s in London, Edinburgh, Dublin, Amsterdam, Berlin, Munich, Hamburg, Prague, Paris, Madrid, Jerusalem, Copenhagen and soon Brussels and Tel Aviv. Free Tours by Foot offers free walking tours in New York, Boston, New Orleans, Charleston, Philadelphia and Washington, D.C., but there are other independent companies in most cities. 

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Belize’s Northern Cayes: Ambergris Caye vs. Caye Caulker

Caye Caulker split belize

Any trip to Belize is sure to include a stay on Ambergris Caye or Caye Caulker – or both. Both a part of the Northern Cayes, or islands, of Belize. Although only a twenty minute boat ride separates them, these two Cayes are worlds apart in terms of the travel experience available on each island.

Ambergris CayeFor long-term travelers, backpackers or digital nomads, a trip through Belize on a tight budget can be a challenge and a choice might need to be made about which Caye to choose if a visit to both is impractical for budget or time purposes. Read on for a summary of the two Cayes to help decide which of these two strikingly different Cayes might be more your style.

Ambergris Caye vs Caye Caulker

Ambergris Caye

Ambergris Caye, population 10,500, is the larger of the two islands by far and is much more developed than Caye Caulker. Also referred to as San Pedro, Ambergris Caye is more upscale than Caye Caulker – not only are there more than 50 hotels on the islands, there are also dozens of new condominium buildings which serve as retirement homes for American expats. The roads are paved and the island is big enough to use golf karts as their main means of transport, in such numbers that they can even cause traffic jams in San Pedro. Ambergris CayeThere are several supermarkets in San Pedro including the large Island Supermarket, which, with its (overpriced) food and drink from the States, caters mainly to the American expat population.

The main reason that people visit is to go on diving or snorkeling trips, as the Mesoamerican reef is only half a mile from the West side of the island. There are beaches around San Pedro stretching along further south, and the town has several beach side restaurants.

Ambergris Caye or Caye CaulkerWe found that the tourists on Ambergris Caye were older and mainly American; there were hardly any backpackers – which might be due to the higher prices on the island (in comparison to Caye Caulker) for both accommodation and food. If you’re trying to decide between Ambergris Caye and Caye Caulker and you’re looking for a backpacker vibe, we don’t think you’ll like Ambergris Caye a lot.

Where to stay on Ambergris Caye

  • Sandbar Beachfront Hostel & Restaurant – hostel with a swimming pool and 10-bed dormitories. Cheapest option on Ambergris Caye. Hammock garden and terrace overlooking the beach. Bar & restaurant onsite. free WiFi. Dorm bed from US$16 per night. Private rooms available.
  • Ambergris Sunset Hotel – a small hotel with swimming pool and free bicycles in the heart of San Pedro. Free wifi and AC. Double rooms start at US$45 per night.
  • Hotel Royal Blue is a small budget hotel right by the beach and close to restaurants and bars in San Pedro, but on the quieter end of town. Rooms are around US$70 per night.
  • Royal Caribbean Resort is a nice resort with an outdoor swimming pool and a private beach in San Pedro. There’s a restaurant and a bar on-site. Bungalows start at US$100 per night with fan, or US$125 per night with AC.
  • Daydream Boutique Hotel – boutique hotel with small cabins set around a swimming pool. There’s a bar, free wifi and free bike rentals. Double room from US$200 per night, breakfast included.

Where to eat on Ambergris Caye

  • Elvi’s Kitchen in San Pedro has Central American food and a big Maya buffet on Fridays
  • Caramba has cheap Mexican and Caribbean food
  • Latitudes Café has great breakfasts and smoothies

Ambergris Caye

What to do on Ambergris Caye:

Ambergris Caye is known for three things: Scuba dive on the Mesoamerican Reef or the Blue Hole, Snorkeling on the Mesoamerican Reef, and watersports (kayaking, kite surfing, standup paddleboarding, jetski, deep sea fishing). If you don’t want to do anything, that’s okay too! You can lounge by the pool all day and relax with a good book.

Caye Caulker

Caye Caulker is considerably smaller than Ambergris Caye, with a population of just 1,300. It has always been the backpacker destination of the Cayes, but the number of more expensive hotels is growing, including the brand new Caye Caulker Plaza. There is still plenty of budget accommodation, including a couple of hostels- the Go Slow Guesthouse, which has dorm rooms starting at US$14, and Bella’s Backpackers, which was one of the first hostels on Caye Caulker.Ambergris Caye or Caye CaulkerRestaurants and hotels are cheaper than on Ambergris Caye though, and the feel of Caye Caulker is much more laid back – ‘Go Slow’ is not without reason the island’s motto. Whereas San Pedro is busy with the whizzing of golf carts, on Caye Caulker most people are out and about on foot or bicycle.

The three unpaved roads are aptly named Front Street, Middle Street and Back Street. Front Street is on the west side of Caye Caulker where the ferries arrive and where most of the hotels and restaurants are located. The village measures not even one kilometer north to south, you can explore it in its entirety on a two hour walk.

Ambergris Caye or Caye CaulkerNot surprisingly, infrastructure is limited, leaving tourists with very little choice. The lack of a swimming beach (lots of sea grass, no beachfront chill spots), leaves visitors the option of sunbathing and swimming at the Split on the north side of Caye Caulker, where a hurricane literally split the island in two.

The best thing to do on Caye Caulker is snorkeling or diving – there are various tour operators that offer boat trips to the Reef where snorkeling is excellent. Snorkeling is fine, no need to dive really, as the water is very shallow.

If you’re traveling on a budget, the answer to the question if to visit Ambergris Caye or Caye Caulker is easy: Caye Caulker is definitely cheaper than Ambergris Caye.

Where to stay on Caye Caulker:

  • Chapito’s Apartment 3 – Budget apartment with a kitchenette and a patio. The apartment is pretty basic, but cheap: from US$49 per night.
  • Anchorage Beach Resort – Small hotel right on the beach; each room has AC and WIFI and a balcony with sea view. Private beach area. Double rooms start at US$60 per night.
  • Colinda Cabanas – small resort consisting of 14 suites and cabanas, right on the beach. Every room has free drinking water and a coffee maker, plus patio or balcony with a table, chairs and a hammock. Complimentary bicycles, snorkeling gear and kayaks. The hotel also has a swimming pier. Great value for money. Cabanas for two start at US$88 per night, or US$149 for four people.
  • Seaside Villas – 2-bedroom apartment (sleeps four people) with sea view, fully equipped kitchen, terrace, swimming pool, beach access, AC & wifi. Apartments start at US$291 per night.

Where to eat on Caye Caulker:

  • The Happy Lobster for big breakfasts (with strong coffee and free re-fills) and cheap food
  • Chef Kareem’s Unbelizable Lunch – small beachside food stall that doesn’t look like much but his incredibly (or should I say unbelizably) good sea food fresh from the grill
  • Chef Juan’s Kitchen and PastriesAmazing lobster and coconut rice, and to-die-for key lime pie. They’re open for breakfast, lunch and dinner
  • Pasta Per Caso -Very good Italian food, eat-in and take-away

 

Lonely Planet has more restaurant suggestions for Caye Caulker, and a full list of accommodation can be found here.

What to do on Caye Caulker:

Caye Caulker is the perfect place to just chill out for a few days, but you should definitely go on a snorkeling trip at least once – the marine life along the Mesoamerican Reef is spectacular. You can simply walk up to one of the local tour operators and book your snorkeling trip while you’re on the island, or if you prefer planning your vacation ahead of time, book a tour through GetYourGuide below:

 

Verdict: Ambergris Caye or Caye Caulker

We enjoyed Caye Caulker much more than Ambergris Caye. While Ambergris Caye was mainly filled with American expats and tourists, Caye Caulker attracted a much younger, more laid-back kind of traveler. It is on Caye Caulker where you meet other backpackers and because the island is so small, you meet people quickly as you continue to bump into each other frequently strolling up and down Front Street or in one of the restaurants. The locals are also much friendlier, starting a conversation with you and living the ‘go slow’ lifestyle and telling you: “Smile, you’re on vacation”. If you’re still unsure if to visit Ambergris Caye or Caye Caulker – why not visit both? If money and time aren’t an issue, it’s well worth seeing both islands for yourself and get a feel for how different they are, despite being right next to each other.

How to get to Caye Caulker and Ambergris Caye

The Marine Terminal in Belize City has ferries running to both islands every 30 minutes.

How much does it cost to get to Caye Caulker / Ambergris Caye

  • US$10.00 Belize City to Caye Caulker
  • US$15.00 Belize City to San Pedro
  • US$10.00 Caye Caulker to San Pedro

Ambergris Caye has a small airport which is served by Tropic Airline and has hourly flights from Belize City.

Belize

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Alternative spring break destinations in Central America

beach

The buzz around spring break destinations has begun with internet top ten lists spouting out the usual spring break ‘hotspots’. Some people might prefer the predictable debauchery in places like Cancun, Acapulco or Panama City, but for those looking for beach holidays with warm weather, cheap beer and, for the young ones out there, a lower drinking age, we have some alternative spring break destinations tips, after spending the past eight months traveling through Mexico and Central America…

Skip Cancun/Cozumel -> Explore the Yucatan

There are countless Cancun spring break package deals for those looking for the ultimate party. But Mexico’s Yucatan has much more to offer than the package party scene. Just a short ferry ride from Cancun is the tiny island of Isla Mujeres, easily our favorite beach spot in Mexico – for a country of thousands of miles of beautiful coastline, that is saying something. The island is so small you can see beach on both sides while standing in the center. The north end has ankle-deep crystal clear water stretching out over 100 feet in front of you. Visit the many restaurants, bars and very chill lounge bars by golf cart – the main mode of transport on Isla Mujeres.

Back on the mainland, visit Puerto Morelos, a sleepy fishing village which is an easy 30 minute bus ride away, or head down past Playa del Carmen to the beautiful beach town of Acumal, an almost undiscovered beach paradise. There are hotels and timeshare resorts surrounded by several small restaurants, but this is an insider spot, and very near to Tulum. Here, visit the indigenous Mayan ruins which have the most beautiful backdrop of any we’ve ever seen – the brightest blue water that looked photoshopped to our bare eyes.playa del carmen

Skip Acapulco/Mazatlan -> Go to Mazunte and Zipolite

On Mexico’s Pacific coast, Acapulco has had some bad press recently as dangerous drug-related incidents continue to happen here and while it and Puerto Vallarta have traditionally been spring break hotspots, we much preferred the two tiny pacific coast beaches of Mazunte and Zipolite. The two beaches, separated by a 15 minute ride, offer up all sun, beach and beer you need.Visitors here tend to be total hedonists, but hedonists who like a laid-back vibe. Zipolite is Mexico’s only nude beach (though this is frowned upon by locals), and at both beaches there isn’t much more to do than lay out (nude or not), explore the nearby jungle and party the night away with beach bonfires.

spring break destinations

Skip Costa Rica -> Head to San Juan del Sur, Nicaragua

Costa Rica is gorgeous – who wouldn’t love the stunning beaches, wild animals and great nightlife. In fact, we are in Costa Rica right now and loving it! However, culturally and economically Costa Rica is much more similar to a vacation in the United States or Europe. And it’s pricey. For an alternative spring break destination, we suggest heading to San Juan del Sur, Nicaragua instead. The Nicaraguan beach town has everything you would ever need for parties, but spending a week in this chilled out surfer town will easily cost you half of any trip to Costa Rica. Beers here will run you $0.50 instead of $3 per beer in most Costa Rican vacation towns, dinners don’t cost more than $16 for two people, while in Costa Rica even a trip to the local ‘soda’ or diner, sometimes cost us $18 for two– no beers included. There are several neighboring beaches which are even more beautiful than the town beach, easily reachable by rent-a-car or group transport, and supposedly the best surfing in all of Nicaragua.spring break destinations

Skip Panama City, Florida -> Go to Panama City, Panama

The beaches of Florida are stuffed to the gills with wet t-shirt contests and binge drinking – the classic spring break party madness. But rather than go to Panama City in Florida, you could spend the same amount of cash dancing salsa with sexy strangers in Panama City – Panama. The city has the most beautiful skyline in all of Central America and a sexy nightlife to match Miami, plus you can visit the Panama Canal and ride the train along it through the lush rain forest.

If a beach is a must, Bocas del Toro is Panama’s party place on the beach. The chain of small Caribbean islands off the coast of Panama has a motto of ‘take it easy’ by day, while people go snorkeling, surfing, or just chill out and take in the sun. By night, the drinking, dancing and party offer up the perfect spring break vibe.

Panama

Skip Jamaica -> Head to Belize

What draws so many people to Jamaica – its crystal clear azure waters, verdant jungle countryside, laid-back attitudes, reggae, plus no foreign language to muddle your way through – can all be had in Belize at a fraction of the price. We visited both popular Cayes (pronounced keys) off the coast of mainland Belize – San Pedro and Caye Caulker.

The two cayes are very different, with San Pedro home to a large, and mainly older, US ex-pat community (who still like to party hard, so don’t let the ‘older’ bit completely turn you off), and Caye Caulker is a much more laid-back, car-free island with dirt roads and one main dancehall, though there are plenty of spots serving up the local rum punch for next to nothing. The snorkeling through Shark-Ray Alley here was the best we have ever experienced, as we saw not only loads of sting rays and sharks, but also turtles, loads of schools of fish and amazing coral. We don’t dive, but the tours off the Cayes are the best in Central America, and we don’t eat fish, but the just-caught fresh seafood is supposedly super cheap and delicious. We do drink beer, however, and we loved washing down our food with the Belizean Belikin beer. Tours on the mainland of Belize can also be organized, with everything from visits to Mayan ruins and ziplining to the ultimate caving adventure – the ATM tour – one of National Geographic’s top recommended adventure experiences in all Central America, and by far the most adventurous activity we have undertaken during our time here.Happy Hour Sign Belize

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Go Beyond… El Salvador’s beaches: Suchitoto and Alegria

Plaza and church of Suchitoto, El Salvador

We might love watching surfers catch waves as the sun sets, but we GlobetrotterGirls don’t surf. Since the beaches of El Salvador are great for surfing but rocky and not great for swimming, this was not the part of the country that grabbed our attention, nor were the big cities or the landscapes.

The most enjoyable part of El Salvador was the smaller towns and villages throughout the country with their peaceful mornings, friendly locals and artistic inspiration. We’ve already outlined the towns along the ‘Ruta de las Flores’, El Salvador’s flower route, but the two towns that have our hearts are Suchitoto and Alegria.Alegria Parque Central

Alegria

Alegria is a small mountain village in the Usulutlan region, surrounded by El Salvador’s highest mountains, coffee farms, and several volcanoes. The village itself is as sleepy as a mountain village can only get. When the bus lets you out on the main square, you might not see a single soul out in the midday sun, except for the two ladies making pupusas right on the square.

Alegria is famous for is the Laguna de Alegria, a crater lake two kilometers outside of town, which you can visit by yourself or take a guided hike like we did. There are only three or four accommodation options, and you may run in to one or two foreigners during your time in town, as this village is truly off the beaten path.

Church of AlegriaOther than that, there is not an awful lot to do in Alegria. You can sit on the main plaza and chat with the locals, eat your way through various pupuserias in the village, check out the views at the spot of the 100 Steps. To work off all the pupusas, walk up and down these 100 steps, or even jog them, like some of the locals do. Otherwise, tour the cobblestone streets to admire the street art and murals that color the town.

Painted house in Alegria

If you are looking for a place with nightlife, museums and entertainment, Alegria might not be the right place for you, but if you are looking to hang back for a few days, relax, take in some El Salvadoran village life and enjoy the fresh mountain air in the highest village in the country, then Alegria is this is the most ‘authentic’ place you can find.

Visiting Alegria – Practical Information

How to get there: From Usulutan, bus No 348 goes directly to Alegria

Where to stay: We have already recommended the superb hostel ‘Entre Piedras’ in our Hotel Tip of the Week, but we are not getting tired of mentioning again that it also contributed significantly to the memorable time we had in Alegria ($20.00 for a double room, free wi-fi).

Suchitoto

At a quick hour’s ride north of San Salvador, Suchitoto is the top mountain getaway pick for tourists and locals alike.

Suchitoto Street6

Although the town contends with Alegria for the title of ‘El Salvador’s most picturesque village’ we think Suchitoto wins hands down. A colonial town with cobblestone streets, a large, bright central square, well-preserved colonial houses and trees and flowers throughout town, Suchitoto is also home to buzzing restaurants, cafes, bars and pupuserias.

Santa Lucia1

During El Salvador’s civil war, artists fled the capital and made Suchitoto home, an inspiring influence which can still be felt throughout the town. Alternative artists and stylish residents browse through quirky shops and art galleries and the smaller Parque San Martin is decorated with sculptures. The creativity can even been seen on the iconic Iglesia Santa Lucia cathedral in central park, which has a stunning white façade, six columns and three towers on top which are decorated with….dinner plates! We love how creative and economical this decoration choice was.

There are several festivals throughout the year, when live music on the central square can be enjoyed while having a drink or a coffee in the many cafes and restaurants that line the Plaza.

Lago de Suchitatlan1

You will see Lake Suchitatlan from town, and this popular weekend destination is easy to reach from town by heading down 3 Avenida Sur all the way down the hill either on foot or by frequent local bus ($0.45) The lake can be crossed by boat or ferry, and is also the starting point of the adventurous hike to the Los Tercios waterfall (a bit too adventurous for us). For equally thrilling but less risky adventure, join the people who zipline across the lake.

Visiting Suchitoto – Practical Information

How to get there: Bus No 129 from San Salvador (Terminal de Oriente) goes directly and very frequently.

Where to stay: There is a cheap hostel often recommended for $10.00 for a double room (6 Calle de Oriente), but it was run down and we wouldn’t recommend it. We opted for the more expensive but also much more comfortable Villa Balanza ($20.00 for a double room, wi-fi, kitchen, TV, lake views), which also has a fantastic restaurant which is worth a visit for affordable typical food and creative décor.

Villa Balanza Sign

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Go Beyond… El Salvador’s beaches: The Ruta de las Flores

Waterfall panorama

Based on the available shuttles from Guatemala and Nicaragua to El Salvador, it might be easy to think that the only place worth a visit in El Salvador is the beach.

For surfers, the beaches of El Salvador – the most well known include El Tunco, El Zonte, El Zunsal and La Libertad – are apparently a dream. The waves always break in the same place and the lessons are about 25% of the price of learning in Costa Rica, the other Central American surfing hot spot.El SalvadorIf you don’t surf, the beaches of El Salvador don’t offer much. The actual beach is rocky, at times you’re clambering over rocks in flip-flops trying to find a patch of sand where walking into the water doesn’t require shoes. The hotels and hostels tend to have full service restaurants and pools, because swimming on the beach is that difficult.

So while the beaches are a cool atmosphere to visit, and give surfing a shot, we would encourage you to Go Beyond the Beaches of El Salvador and check out some of the inland colonial villages. In this article we’ll look at El Salvador’s Ruta de las Flores, or the ‘Flower Route’.Ruta de las Flores

La Ruta de las Flores – El Salvador’s Flower Route

The name of this 40km stretch of western El Salvador comes from the plentiful wildflowers that grow along the road, especially between November and February when they are in full bloom. The Ruta officially begins in Sonsonate, which is easily reachable from La Libertad, the main beach town and transportation hub for El Salvador’s beaches, making it easy to combine with a surf getaway.

While the flowers are beautiful when in full bloom, it is the pretty colonial towns that line up along the Ruta,  plus the scenic waterfalls, lagunas and a weekly food fair  that attract visitors from around the country to this mountainous Ruta.

Ruta de las Flores

Juayua

Coming from the south, the first stop is the town of Juayua, famous for its weekly food fair. The otherwise sleepy town heaves on weekends when visitors from around the country, neighboring Guatemala and international tourists pack the streets to sample regional dishes and listen to live music on the plaza. Juayua is also the starting point of the ‘7 Waterfalls’ tour, a hike leading through series of breathtaking waterfalls. Don’t forget your bathing suit to swim in several of the pools at the falls.

Ruta de las FloresFood junkies note: Opposite the church on the main square, turn right and walk one block up to reach a large ‘pupuseria’. We loved the pupusas at this place.

Apaneca

The next little town on the Ruta is Apaneca, even sleepier than Juayua, with cobble-stoned streets and a beautiful church. There are scenic two crater lakes outside of town, Laguna Verde and Laguna de las Ninfas, which make for great hikes. Other than for the hikes, the town doesn’t need more than a quick stroll and you can head off to the next stop soon.Apaneca

Ataco

Ataco, just ten minutes from Apaneca, is a very charming stop along the Ruta de las Flores. The colonial town’s cobblestone streets are lined with brightly painted houses, several with beautiful murals. Two very similar churches anchor each side of town. Make your way up to the view point on the hill behind the church La Concepcion for views over Ataco and the coffee plantations that blanket the surrounding mountains.Ruta de las FloresThe best (but also the busiest) time for a visit is the weekend when there is live marimba music on the plaza, all of the little shops and restaurants are open and food and craft stands fill up the plaza.

Ahuachapan

The last stop is Ahuachapan, considerably more populated than the other towns along the Ruta de las Flores. Ahuachapan is missing Ataco’s charm, and being a much busier market town and transport hub on the way to Guatemala and over to the El Salvadorian city of Santa Ana, there is not much in terms of tourism to offer. The main plaza, filled with palm trees and flowers, makes a great spot for people watching and has a beautiful church on its north side. Check out the mural covered buildings on the right side of the church, which also house a few restaurants, but don’t plan in a lot of time here. If you don’t visit the Ruta with a car, we might even say to skip Ahuachapan altogether.Ruta de las Flores

Practical information for your trip to the Ruta de las Flores

The freedom of visiting the Ruta with a car means you can easily stop, hop out for a stroll and continue on to the next stop, and the entire route can be visited in one day. For those visiting by bus, plan in two days to cover all the stops. We used Juayua as our base and then explored the rest of the Ruta from there taking the 249 and 53 buses to each of the towns.

If you do combine the Ruta de Las Flores with a surf escape, Bus 287 runs from La Libertad to Sonsonate, the very southern end of the route, in about 2.5 hours. From there, you can choose which town to start in and take a bus to get there. If you need help, just ask, as the people are very friendly. The chicken buses in El Salvador are safe and easy to get around, and cost between $0.50 and $1.50 per ride.

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33 things we love about Nicaragua

no thumb

Every once in a while, a country really takes us by surprise, like our deep love affair with Mexico. We had an inkling we would love Nicaragua, and after spending six weeks here, it was easy as pie to come up with a long list of favorites. Read on for thirty three things we love about Nicaragua, in no particular order.

1.    Leon
Well, we say in no particular order, but number one is by far our Nicaraguan number one. Leon is our favorite city in Nicaragua. It is constantly buzzing with vibrant, friendly locals, interesting colonial architecture, one of Central America’s most stunning cathedrals and countless restaurants and bars to eat and drink your nights away. We could easily spend much more time in this scorching hot city!

Orange truck in Leon Nicaragua

2.    Gallo Pinto
This dish, called ‘painted rooster’ is the national dish both of Nicaragua and Costa Rica (we preferred its taste in Nicaragua). Consisting of rice, beans and a magical mix of spices, we could literally eat Gallo Pinto morning, noon and night, although it is usually eaten for breakfast.

3.    La Calle Calzada in Granada
Normally we wouldn’t choose the main tourist center of a city as one of our favorite spots, but Granada’s Calle Calzada is lined with full green trees and one brightly colorful house after the next, from the Cathedral all the way down to Lake Nicaragua. Strolling past the (admittedly overpriced) restaurants and bars, the street is buzzing with diners, drinkers and street performers ranging from acrobats and breakdancers to a slew of international jewelry-sellers.

Calle Calzada Granada Nicaragua4.    Counting the stars on Little Corn Island
Every evening, as we walked back to Little Corn Beach and Bungalow hotel along the deserted beach, we swear we could see almost every star in the sky, which really made us realize just how remote this little island was in the middle of vast Caribbean sea.

5.    Pigs roaming the beach of Poneloya and the streets in Balgue on Ometepe Island

Poneloya Pig on beach

6.    The California feeling of San Juan del Sur

7.    Flor de Caña rum

The national rum of Nicaragua, this drink is sold throughout the world as one the best rums. Luckily, in Nicaragua, this homegrown drink is both delicious and cheap! Nicaraguans traditionally order an entire bottle, along with water or Coke, and split it across a table of four…often times, they then order another!

8.    The horse-drawn carriages
All over the country, in little villages as well as big towns, the horse-drawn carriage is a part of everyday life.

church & horse carriage in Masaya Nicaragua9.    El Desayunazo
Our favorite breakfast place in Leon, which made for some of our top food moments of 300 days of travel! We usually ordered Gallo Pinto and Huevos Rancheros.

10.    Riding our rented bicycles around Granada
We would encourage anyone who visits Granada to get out and see beyond the well-maintained town center. Our ride revealed a city with a very uneven distribution of wealth, much different to Leon, as well as the striking ruins of the old hospital and a peaceful poetry park far from the city center.

11.    The perfectly shaped volcano Concepcion of Ometepe

Volcano Concepcion Ometepe Island12.    Leon’s Central Market
By far one of the cleanest markets in Central America, Leon’s market is filled with friendly vendors, super cheap fruits & vegetables and is a ‘real’ market not overrun by tourists.

13.    The relaxing effects of a lazy day at Laguna de Apoyo

14.    Public transportation is easy
Throughout Nicaragua, using public transportation is easy. The buses are cheap, never as crowded as Guatemala, and some were even pretty comfortable.

15.    Cheap street food in the Parque Central in Granada
Eating out in Granada can be ridiculously overpriced, aimed at the surprisingly large number of high-end tourists who flood the city. However, the city’s central park is anchored by four outdoor restaurants which serve up typical Nicaraguan food at typical Nicaraguan prices, plus there are several street food stands spread throughout the park, too.

Street food in Granada16.    The Colibri Hostel in Leon
This hostel
was our home for two full weeks, and we can highly recommend staying here.

17.   Toña beer
Maybe it was due to the hot, sunny days, but we loved Nicaraguan beer more than any other in Central America and Mexico. Our favorite by far was the delicious Toña beer! We miss you Toña!

18.    The creative street art in the northern city of Estelí

Esteli street art19.    Rocking chairs!
We loved rocking away in them or just watching the Nicaraguans chilling in their rocking chairs on the sidewalk in front of their house.

20.    Exploring  Masaya by horse-drawn taxi
Sure, you can jump in a horse-drawn carriage made for tourists in Granada, but while we were in the nearby city of Masaya, we discovered that the locals get from A to B by way of horse-drawn taxi. For less than a dollar we got a ‘lift’ from the central park down to the beautiful promenade overlooking the lake and the Masaya volcano.

21.    Macuá
The national drink of Nicaragua, Macuá is a sweet cocktail with Flor de Caña rum and several fruit juices. Fabulous!

Macua Cocktail22.    South Bay beach on Big Corn Island
The beautiful white-sand beach is lined with palm trees and crystal clear water.

23.    El Rincón Pinareño restaurant in Estelí
This clean, bright local favorite has a large menu with Cuban and Nicaraguan dishes. We had the best Yucca dish in all of Nicaragua here, plus they offer a great selection of mouth-watering cakes.

24.    Chicken Buses, literally.
Latin America is famous for their ‘chicken buses’ but Nicaragua had more chickens and roosters per capita than anywhere else we experienced in Central America.

Chicken on bus in Nicaragua25.    Boarding down the Cerro Negro Volcano near Leon

26.     Pan y Paz
The French owner of this Leon cafe makes deliciously fresh chocolate croissants and brie baguettes – a rare find in Central America!

Pan y paz in Leon27.     Passionate politically-charged poetry
Poetry in Nicaragua remains a relevant political tool and reveals the passion of the people. The national newspaper includes a poetry section every day, and internationally-famous poets, like the Leon local Ruben Dario, are cherished by all.

28.    Mama Sara
Mama Sara runs a little (unmarked) guest house in San Juan del Sur, and was one of the warmest Nicaraguans we met. She treated guests like her very own children, making us traditional food and drinks, and always making sure we had everything we needed. If you arrive in San Juan del Sur and a nice lady on her bicycle introduces herself as Mama Sara, make sure to go to her house at once!

29.    Choys Maní
This tasty little chocolate bar is similar to a Snickers but much better.

Choys Mani chocolate bar30.    Pathways on Little Corn Island
This tiny Caribbean island has no roads, only pathways, which makes the island feel that much more remote.

31.    The revolutionary spirit of Leon
Leon was the home of the revolutionaries, and this passion can still be seen in the street art, graffiti, murals and museums.

A C Sandino Wall Painting in Leon Nicaragua32.    Cooking an Old Indian with Doña Ana

33.    Mariposa
We haven’t spoken much about our love at first sight experience in Leon as it was too close to our hearts. We fell in love with Mariposa, a little stray dog in Leon who instantly became attached to us. We bought her food, took her around town with us each day, even bought her a collar and leash. She was so well-behaved and loved us so much, people on the street would always remark what a great dog she was as we walked by. We almost took her with us. But after several long discussions we decided it would be better to find her a home in Leon and vowed not to leave until she was in safe, loving hands.  The owner of the Via Via hostel took her in, and Mariposa got a new family with three other canine brothers and sisters. If you go to Leon, make sure to give a bit of your patronage to the caring, good people at Via Via (and if you ask about Mariposa, please give us an update!)

Dani & Mariposa in Leon

If you have visited Nicaragua and share our love for the country, please add your favorite things in the comments below!

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Top 5 things to do in Panama City, Panama

Panama City Skyline

You’re visiting Panama’s capital and don’t know what to do? Here are five great things to do in Panama City – ranging from urban jungle to a beach escape:

1 Visit the Panama Canal – The vein of Panama

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 Visitor Center incl observation terrace – $5
Taxi from Panama City – $5-$6
Bus from Albrook Mall – $0.50

2 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 rain forest 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 – $4.00

Bus ride – $.025 – $.050

casco viejo panama city3 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.

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.

4 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.

5 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 has 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 Central America 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 traveling 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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Taboga Island – The perfect beach escape from Panama City

Dani and Jess on Taboga Island Panama

The rhythm of the light waves tapping at the shore made the only music on this otherwise peaceful morning. We soaked up still soft sun rays as we laid half asleep on the gentle, warm sand after arriving unusually early to the idyllic beach at Taboga Island.

The 30 minute, 12-mile ferry ride leaves from the Balboa yacht club in Panama City at 8.30 each morning, filled mostly by locals and construction workers. This left us as the only passengers to head straight to the beach. Had one of the shops or restaurants been open, we may have had coffee in one, but this tiny island in the Gulf of Panama, also known as ‘Island of Flowers’, was still fast asleep.
arrival on taboga islandAfter half an hour snoozing on an otherwise deserted beach, we opted for an early morning hike, before the sun would become too strong, forcing us into lazy beach mode. There are a few unmarked hiking trails which lead to hilly viewpoints, we were distracted by an area of hundreds of tiny, shiny green frogs frolicking in the forest. By the time we thought to continue, the sun had become too hot for a hike, forcing us back down to the beach.

Taboga Island beachThe stretch of sand suitable for swimmers is actually quite small, so without much left to explore, we planted ourselves right back where we had been sitting before on the sandy isthmus, and faced the other direction. By now, twenty or so others had come down to the beach from their hotels and holiday apartments, so we spent time people watching while wading in the crystal clear Pacific and watching the freighters far in the distance, lining up to cross through the Panama Canal as the solitude of the morning slowly burned off into a blazing hot afternoon.

Tabago IslandCrispy from the sun and starving from the sea breeze, we headed into town in search of shade and some grub. Taboga Island, population 1,600, has no cars, a few shops and a smattering of restaurants and hotels around the island. Tourism is the top source of income, with fishing a close second. It would be easy to imagine a feeling of ultimate island solitude, but between the queued-up mega freighters and the Panama City skyline in the distance, it is impossible not to remain very aware of exactly where you are in the world.

taboga Island PathAfter sucking down a few ice cold Balboa beers and a heaping plate of fried rice, we returned to the beach, cooling off in the water until the ferry returned to take us back to the city, eight hours after dropping us off for our perfect Panama City escape.

visit Taboga Island
How to get to Taboga Island

We took the ferry from Balboa yacht club on the Amador Causeway; the return ticket is $20 per person. The ride takes around 30 minutes. Taxis from Panama City to the yacht club are around $5 (the easiest way to get there).

Check here for updated ferry times as they only leave a few times per day. Taboga Express leaves Monday through Friday at 8am, 9.30am, 11am and 3pm. On weekends, there is an additional departure at 4pm.

Taboga Express leaves Taboga Island at 8.45am, 10.15am, 2.30pm and 4pm. On weekends and holidays, there’s an additional departure at 5pm.

What to bring to Taboga Island

Sunscreen, a towel and a good read – that’s all you need when you visit Taboga Island for just the day. There are several cheap restaurants near the ferry dock, a cool beer is $0.75.
Framed sea view taboga island

Where to stay on Taboga Island

There aren’t many hotels on Taboga Island – less than ten, to be precise, but if you are looking for a couple of days of rest & relaxation away from the city, Taboga Island won’t disappoint. If you are traveling with your family or a larger group, you might also want to check out Airbnb’s on Taboga Island, since they have larger properties, entire apartments for less than US$100 per night, beach houses and villas that can accommodate up to 8 people. There are more Airbnb’s on Taboga Island than hotels.

Tip: I you don’t have an Airbnb account yet, sign up with my referral code and get up to $40 off your first booking.

For hotels, we recommend:

  • Villa Caprichosa – this beautiful small boutique hotel modeled off of an Italian mansion has only five suites, a swimming pool, and stunning ocean views. Suites range from US$103 (1-bedroom suite) to US$193 (2-bedroom suite), depending on size and amenities.
  • Taboga Palace Spa Hotel – smallhotel with a sun terrace, an infinity pool and an on-site bar. Every room has a balcony and there’s a shared sundeck / lounge with lovely vistas over the ocean. Rooms start at US$121 / US$132 (the latter with seaview).
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The Panama Canal Train Ride: Is it worth it?

Gatun locks Panama

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 signIn 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 ($4 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 TrainUpon 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-upThe 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 Panama Canal 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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Tops and Flops of 400 days of travel

Dani & Jess in Monterosso Cinque Terre

We spent a wonderful day in Madrid last Sunday, where we celebrated a major milestone – we’ve been on the road for 400 days now! Over tapas and beer in the Spanish capital, we reflected on the last 100 days, which we spent in Costa Rica, Panama, Germany, Italy, Spain and cruising the Mediterranean. As usual, there are always highs and lows throughout our travels. The past 100 days were filled with the highest of highs, and luckily no dramatic lows – read on for our Tops and Flops:

Top travel moments

House-sitting in a B&B in Tuscany

Before we ever set off as permanent travelers, we looked into house-sitting, thanks to this article in the Guardian newspaper. The journalist spent time house-sitting in an old Italian farmhouse B&B. From the moment we read this article, we had dreamt of doing exactly that, and although we have loved all of our other house-sits, we jumped at the chance to housesit in a Tuscan B&B, high up in the mountains between the medieval town of Barga and the buzzing city of Lucca. For ten days in April we explored northern Tuscany, sampled as much pizza as possible, and enjoyed our time in the cozy Italian farmhouse!

Borgo a mozzano Italy

Cruising the Mediterranean

We like to identify as long-term, budget travelers – the kind of travelers who stay for long periods of time in each location, learning and adapting to each new way of life. Spending a week on a cruise ship visiting a new port city each day certainly does not fall into this travel style, but when Jess’ parents invited us to join them on their Mediterranean cruise, we couldn’t resist the opportunity to test out such a different way of traveling.

Cruise ShipTo our surprise, it turns out that we really enjoyed it! After months of fairly hard-core travel through Central America and Mexico, and new hotel rooms every other day, we really appreciated a week of easy travel, comfortable beds, hot showers, the fitness center and spa, plus all the (really tasty) food were all included. The biggest disadvantage of a cruise (in addition to the extortionate wi-fi rates on board) is that you only get a teaser of each port of call, but since we had already visited nearly all the ports before, we just enjoyed the vacation and showing Jess’ parents some of our favorite places in Spain and Italy.

San Gimignano view

Seeing the Panama Canal

Dani has always been fascinated by ports and giant freight ships, so the Panama Canal was a definite highlight of the last 100 days. It was fascinating to witness these massive ships being lowered through the locks of the Panama Canal on their way around the globe, seeing first hand this element of international business and how we acquire the goods like cars, TVs, spices, fruits we have come to expect to be available to us every day.

Gatun locks Panama

The Top of Germany

During our time in Germany, we literally went all the way to the Top, so we just had to include this in our Tops section! We took a gondola up to the very top of the country’s highest mountain, the Zugspitze, which is not only the highest mountain in Germany, but also forms part of the border between Germany and Austria. We spent some time watching snowboarders and skiers, eating a German dumpling meal and chugging down Bavarian Hefeweizen beer – which surprisingly tasted much better all the way up there!

Globetrottergirls on Top of Germany Zugspitze

Favorite places

Siena, Italy

This charming town in southern Tuscany combines postcard perfect medieval buildings and tradition with a modern urban feel thanks to the well-established university in town. This modest sized city has good shopping, great restaurants, cheap eats, and plenty of fun bars, but drive just five minutes outside of town, and you are back in the heart of the vineyards, cypresses and olive trees which make up the colorful Tuscan countryside.

Piazza di Campo Siena Italy

Casco Viejo, Panama City, Panama

Panama City can be easily divided into two very distinct areas to explore. The skyscrapers that make up the Panama City skyline rival almost any U.S. city, and the people who live in this area have adopted an identical lifestyle – pimped out SUV trucks, fast-food joints, wide multi-lane city streets and strip malls galore. Head on down to Casco Viejo, however, and the feeling couldn’t be more different. Fully-restored buildings and their still dilapidated neighbors line tiny winding cobble stone streets. The area can feel European, and at the same time, with the Latin rhythms, Panama Hats and laid-back vibe Casco Viejo feels like how you imagine Havana, Cuba might feel. This was easily one of the memorable places we experienced throughout our last 100 days.

Casco Viejo Panama

Puerto Viejo, Costa Rica

This Caribbean town in Costa Rica has something to match everyone’s tastes, and without even a sliver of stress. We rented bikes and explored the stretches of nearly empty beaches, had overpriced fruity cocktail drinks in a fancy beachside bar, ate street food, and danced to reggaton with blurry eyes until late… we couldn’t have had a better time here!

Music with that Jessie chick in Puerto Viejo, Costa Rica

San Gimignano, Italy

The medieval town of 13 towers is the quintessential Tuscan town. It is walkable in a few hours and loaded with restaurants and shops selling everything from cheesy tourist trinkets to gorgeous pottery. Make sure to climb to the top of the Torre Grossa, the tallest tower, for breathtaking views of the surrounding countryside and keep your eyes peeled for one of the many free wine-tastings available in town!

Plaza in San Gimignano Italy

Bavaria, Germany

We are unable to pick out just one place in Bavaria as our favorite. We just had a storybook time during our house sit in Germany. Neither of us has ever done much exploring in Bavaria before, and we enjoyed taking the time to get to know this very traditional and very green area of southern Germany. We took several day trips to Munich, Neuschwanstein Castle, the picturesque town of Fuessen, visited Innsbruck in Austria and even just strolling through the village we lived in, climbing the snow-covered mountain behind our house and seeing the monastery of Ettal was all really fun.

Bavarian village, Germany

Most disappointing places

Bocas del Toro, Panama

Bocas del Toro comprise several tiny islands off Panama’s Caribbean coast, not far from the border to Costa Rica. We thought we would find gorgeous beaches and a purely Caribbean feel. In reality, the beaches are a bus trip or water taxi ride away, and some of those beaches charge to get in and are packed with people. The scenery was gorgeous, but having come from some amazing beaches in Costa Rica and Nicaragua’s Corn Islands, we were hoping for a bit more from all the praise Bocas had been getting from fellow travelers.

Bocas del toro street Panama

Florence, Italy

When it comes to Tuscany, Florence tends to be named as the city to visit, but we missed the ‘Wow’ factor we felt in other spots we visited in Tuscany. We found Florence to be overpriced, overcrowded with bus loads of tourists, and not as pretty as Siena, Lucca or San Gimignano. For art lovers, Florence can be the ultimate destination, as the city is home to the Uffizi gallery and the Academia, which both house incredible paintings and sculptures, as well as being home to an ornate Cathedral and the Ponte Vecchio bridge. Most people love it, but the famous city didn’t inspire us as much as we thought.

Fountain of Neptune by Bartolomeo Ammannati, Florence, Italy

The Panama Canal train ride

Sure, train rides in Central America are rate, nearly non-existent, and one along the Panama Canal sounds fascinating. But we say don’t bother getting up at the crack of dawn for this disappointing train ride along the canal. We had read about this train ride months before we even got to Panama, and descriptions such as luxurious and unforgettable experience really drew us in for the ride from the Miraflores Lock 50km cross country to the Gatun lock. Tourists are herded into one very old car on the train which may have been luxurious 50 years ago, but today feels run down. Very little of the ride offers actual views of the canal, and despite the luscious jungle and blue lakes, the hour-long ride for $22 is a one-way trip which leaves you in the undesirable town of Colon forced to make your way to a bus station to hop on a bus back to where you started.

Panama Canal Train Waggon

Travel recommendations

House-sitting

We recommended house-sitting before, but having had two more great house-sits in the last 100 days, we can only recommend it again. We are signed up with two house-sitting websites which has brought us to two places we wouldn’t have visited otherwise: a tiny German village in the Alps near the Austrian border and a cute Italian mountain village north of Lucca, plus in the very near future, a housesit in Canada, which was not on our itinerary either. Not only did we get to know these regions, but we also took advantage of having a house again for a while: our own kitchen, showers and toilets and having a car – all things we didn’t have while traveling through Central America for the last seven months. We also appreciated the fact that showers were always hot, we did not have to share the bathroom and we didn’t pay a penny for accommodation during that time.

Our home for two weeks - an Italian farmhouse in Tuscany

Car shares in Germany

Car-sharing, or carpooling, in Germany is a well-developed market, and just as common as taking a bus or a taxi. There are several websites for car-sharing, which allow you to search for drivers headed in your direction and book a ride with them, for not more than your fair share of the gas. We moved throughout Germany entirely using car-sharing, and we even went to Italy and back using the same websites and paying only 35 Euros per person instead of 229 Euros which we each would have paid for the train around Easter. Speaking German is a plus not only for reading the site but also when spending time in the car speaking to the wide variety of drivers and other passengers. However, enough Germans speak English well-enough to get you from A to B and save you a ton of money while traveling around the country.

Stay at Belmonte Vacanze

Our time in Tuscany easily competes as the absolute top of our 400 days of travel. There is no question that our overwhelmingly positive experience is due, in large part, to our time at the family-run Belmonte Vacanze holiday apartments, set in the perfect location for the perfect Tuscany farm holiday. Although it feels like you are staying at a villa in the deepest Tuscan countryside, Belmonte Vacanze is actually just a 15-minute drive from San Gimignano, Volterra, ten minutes from our new favorite little town of Montaione, 30 minutes from Siena, and you can even make it to the Tuscan coast and Pisa in 1 hour, and Cinque Terre within 2 hours. There is an on-site horse-riding facility, a large swimming pool, and our one-bedroom apartment which came equipped with everything we needed, including sweeping views of the Tuscan countryside and the friendliest owners we’ve come across yet!

Belmonte Vacanze holiday apartments in TuscanyWorst travel moments

Bank card fraud in Panama City

When Jess tried to use her debit card in Panama City, the ATM spit out her card, but no cash came out. After this happened four times at two different ATMs, we returned cashless to our hostel and checked the online bank statement: several hundred dollars had been withdrawn from Colombia, and as we were in Panama, not Colombia, we saw quickly some major fraud was in action. The bank (HSBC) was quick and efficient in returning the charges, but we were stuck without the only debit card that still worked after a series of debit card issues throughout the year. Luckily this happened one day before we flew to Germany, where we had a fixed address for long enough to get new cards sent over. Cash advances on our credit card ended up being very expensive though.

Top travel mishaps

Opening a bank account with a sh** bank

When we arrived in Germany we finally received our new Nationwide Bank debit cards which had been forwarded to us, after 5 months without being able to use our joint account. After the debit card fraud on our other account, we were more than happy to hold our new cards – the smiles on our faces disappeared quickly though when we read the bold print in the accompanying letter: This card can not be used for cash withdrawals abroad. I’m sorry, can you repeat that?!

We had opened our account with Nationwide in England just before we left on our trip because they were offering free international withdrawals – and now they changed their policy so that the cards can not even be used abroad. If you are from England and about to set off on a RTW trip – do not sign up with Nationwide. Nationwide sucks.

Bad planning: Arriving in Panama just in time for Carnival

When we crossed over from Costa Rica into Panama, we had just found out that all of Panama was celebrating Carnival, which is one of the biggest parties in the world. With the entire country on holiday, we crossed the border into the country on a day when no local buses running and hostels were completely booked. We ended up overpaying for a taxi to the ferry to Bocas del Toro, where we ended up spending a night together in the bottom bunk in a grungy hostel right next to the three-story mega-speakers of the main carnival stage in Bocas. Oops!

Bocas del toro carnival devil PanamaTop food moments

Italian Pizza at Il Ciampo, Montaione in Italy

During our stay in Italy it took us a while to find decent pizza. In fact, we didn’t even like the first few pizzas we ordered. However, the longer we stayed, the better the pizza was that we found! The best pizza that will stay with us forever in our memories of Tuscany was a mascarpone & tomato pizza and a rucola & parmesan pizza at Pizzeria Il Ciampo in the small town of Montaione near San Gimignano.

Pizza at Il Ciampi in Montaione Italy

Pretzels in Bavaria, Germany

Jess loves German soft pretzels, called Brez’n in Bavaria. Pretzels are equal to bread and are used for making any kind of sandwich or come with cheese baked on top. Jess had at least one pretzel every day throughout the seven weeks we spent in Germany off and on in the last few months – she can’t get enough!

Pretzels in Bavaria

Tapas at Restaurante Carmela in Seville, Spain

We always seem to find a great restaurant in Seville, and Restaurante Carmela is no exception. We filled the entire table with vegetarian tapas and were thankful for the long walk back to our hotel to help digest it all.

Delicious Tapas at Carmela in Seville Spain

Gelato in Monterosso al Mare, Cinque Terre in Italy

We each had delicious gelato from a beach-side stand in Monterosso al Mare, but really, you can go to almost any gelateria in Italy and find delicious gelato – chocolate, strawberry, tutti-frutti and even some more exotic flavors such as zabaione and pistachio. Sure some places are better than others, but we did a lot of work as amateur gelato testers and have yet to find gelato that didn’t taste good!

Gelato in ItalyMore Tops & Flops:

Our Tops and Flops of 300 days of travel: Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua and Costa Rica
Our Tops and Flops of 200 days of travel: Mexico, Belize, Guatemala and El Salvador
Our Tops and Flops of 100 days of travel: Las Vegas, California, Arizona, Mexico

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