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Hotel Tip Of The Week: La Estancia in San Salvador

hotel tip of the week

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Welcome to our weekly series Hotel Tip of The Week. Being on the road every day of the year means we stay at countless hotels along the way. For all the dingy, disappointing budget digs, there are as many budget accommodation gems. We post one hotel tip of the week, every week, of places we feel confident recommending after having tried and tested them ourselves.

Set along a winding road in a quiet side street, there is no sign marking La Estancia, but almost every cab driver in the city knows the place. If arriving on foot, look out for a purple gate. Popular among Peace Corp volunteers and budget travelers from around the world, La Estancia’s chintzy wood paneling and decades-old furniture feel like a well-worn pair of shoes – the ones that look ugly but are your go-to, reliable pair.

The hotel has two dorms and four $30 double rooms. Our room, Room #5, is apparently the best. It had two double  beds, a large, clean private bathroom with hot water (real hot water, not an electric shower head), a TV with a DVD player and DVDs, and even a private (small) outdoor patio with a plastic table and chairs.

The dorm rooms have six beds and appeared safe and secure for $12, and dorm guests can also enjoy a range of DVDs on the 42-inch flat screen in the living room. Here there are two comfortable couches and a reclining chair, a DVD library and a small library as well with a good selection of books thanks to the many longer-term volunteers who pass through the hotel. A second living room has a TV (no DVD player), two couches and opens up onto a tiny patio space with a fountain. The wi-fi works well in all shared spaces and we were able to get some good work done in between all the DVD watching (oh, and sightseeing, of course). The fully-equipped kitchen, open to guests, is split into two parts – a cramped cooking/washing up space, and an open space with a very clean fridge, 8-seat round table, and plenty of dishes and silverware.

Breakfast is served out here, although it leaves much to be desired (see Room for Improvement below). Free coffee is available all day though, and cooking for yourself is no issue at all, thanks to the two mega-supermarkets located at the Metrocentro just five minutes’ walking distance from the hotel.  In fact, it is the hotel’s location that we found to be the best aspect of our stay at La Estancia.

Stand Out Feature: Location, Location, Location

La Estancia is five minutes from the Metrocentro Mall on Boulevard de Heroes, which is a North American style mega mall with supermarkets, restaurants, coffee shops, a 12 theater Cineplex and a healthy range of shopping options from high fashion to basic needs. Depending on how long you have been on the road, even those who like to avoid such mall monstrosities can appreciate the chance to run every conceivable errand around the corner from their hotel.

The Metrocentro is also a major transportation hub. Almost every city bus line and taxis pass by here, which makes getting home from a day of exploring the city that much easier.

Room for improvement

Breakfast is included in the price, but it is prepared grudgingly by a member of the cleaning staff. It just did not taste good. A toaster oven and a loaf of white bread is made available for anyone to prepare their own toast – certainly a wiser option.

Overall: La Estancia San Salvador

El Salvador’s capital city of San Salvador, more specifically the swanky Zona Rosa district, has attracted several four and five star international hotel chains which jut enthusiastically out of an otherwise muted city skyline. Far from this glitz and glamour, visitors on a budget might have a hard time finding affordable, yet comfortable accommodation in the capital. La Estancia may not sparkle, but in terms of practicality, this budget hotel is hard to beat.

La Estancia San Salvador – the details

Location: Av Cortés 216, Centro, San Salvador
Price:
US$12 for a dorm, $15 per person in a private room
LGBT Friendly:
Unknown to us
Amenities:
Wi-fi, kitchen, free coffee, DVDs, hot showers
Contact: +
503 2275 3381

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Polaroid of the week: Dinner plate decorations on the Santa Lucia, Suchitoto

polaroidoftheweekphoto11

We spent the weekend in a beautiful town called Suchitoto in the north of El Salvador. The main sight is the Iglesia Santa Lucia, a white church that has a stunning façade with six ionic-style columns and three towers on top. After posting a picture of Santa Lucia on our Globetrottergirls Facebook Page, Juergen from Dare2go.com made us aware of the dinner plates on the roofs of the three towers, which we had not seen. So we went back the next day to take a closer look – the roofs are indeed covered by dinner plates! Apparently, the plates were donated by a bride who was married in the church as a sign of appreciation.

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Hotel Tip of The Week: La Barranca Hostel, Suchitoto, El Salvador

hotel tip of the week

Welcome to our Hotel Tip of The Week series. Being on the road every day of the year means we stay at countless hotels along the way. For all the dingy, disappointing budget digs, there are as many budget accommodation gems. We post one hotel tip of the week, every week, of places we feel confident recommending after having tried and tested them ourselves. This week: Hostel La Barranca in Suchitoto, El Salvador.

suchitoto hostel

We had arrived in Suchitoto, El Salvador during a music festival, and while this guaranteed us an eventful time while in town, our only accommodation option the first night was a room at a well-known but sub-par American-owned place. While strolling around town, we came across Villa Balanza restaurant, and as they had received a glowing review in our Footprint guidebook, we decided to sit down here for a bite to eat and ended up booking a room at the hostel for the next night at the same time we paid our restaurant bill.

This is not your typical backpacker hostel with restaurant (read: bar) attached. La Barranca is a peaceful hostel set at the bottom of a rather long, steep hill, a five minute walk from the restaurant with views of the major tourist draw, the famous Lake Suchitlan. The way down the hill with luggage is a challenge, even harder is the slog back up after check out, but for those who are reasonably fit (or have a car) the serene setting of the accommodation is more than worth it.

Lago de Suchitatlan

La Barranca is made up of a two story main house with five bedrooms upstairs over a very homey kitchen and living room downstairs. A second building just behind it houses another five rooms with doors opening out onto a peaceful courtyard with tables and chairs. Staying here feels more like staying in a suburban home, with all the appropriate comforts. The clean, well-decorated rooms have double beds, plenty of space and en-suite bathrooms. (The bathroom is built into the room, has a saloon-door entrance and is open on top, so we recommend staying at La Barranca with someone you know fairly well, as you will be sharing your bathroom noises with everyone in the room.)

The kitchen has beautiful mahogany cabinets, a squeaky clean fridge, all the necessary appliances and is roomy enough to fit a decent sized kitchen table with space to host dinner for a few friends.  The living room is equally spacious, with a couch, chairs, a TV, and a computer with internet for those who do not travel with their own laptop. For those who do, including us digital nomads, La Barranca offers free, hi-speed Wi-Fi, which works perfectly everywhere in the main house, fairly well outside in the courtyard, but unfortunately did not reach to the rooms in the second building.

Stand Out Feature: The restaurant – Villa Balanza

As we mentioned, our meal at Villa Balanza hugely influenced our decision to stay at La Barranca, run by the same family.  Set just off of a quiet park five minutes from the Suchitoto’s central plaza, this restaurant serves up stylish versions of typical Salvadorian food for just pennies more than the street food vendors in town, while the quality of the food would rival any Latin American restaurant in any major city.  The food itself is just one aspect of what Villa Balanza is really setting out to do, which is to define through food, art and history, what it means, and what it has always meant, to be Salvadorian. Hanging over the entryway to Villa Balanza is a large scale (‘Balanza’ means ‘balance’ in Spanish). On one side sits a 750 pound weapon from the armed forces during the fairly recent civil war, on the other, a stack of tortillas. The scale is meant to symbolize the counterbalance of the town’s history in the war with the country’s deeply rooted traditional ‘culture of corn’. Inside the restaurant, the walls are lined with a mix of contemporary oil paintings, centuries’ old photographs and some of the most delicious food in town.

Sculpture

Room for improvement: In-room wi-fi

This is often a frustrating, if not downright picky, request as so often hotels in countries like the USA and Germany rarely offer free wi-fi at all. However, for those who spend time travelling in Central America, free wi-fi is a given in almost all hotels, especially those in the budget category. Plus, La Barranca offers free-wi to guests. With a second router, the hostel would have gotten perfect marks from us, as we often work late into the night after a day of sightseeing, and would have preferred working from our room rather than out in the living room until after midnight.

Location: Barrio San José N° 7 Next to the San Martin Park, Suchitoto, Cuscatlan, El Salvador
Price:
$25 per room per night
LGBT Friendly:
Yes
Amenities:
Kitchen, wi-fi, lounge, yard

Tip: Check out Booking.com for the best places to stay in Suchitoto!

Suchitoto hostel

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Street food junkies on the hunt in El Salvador: Pupusas

pupusas salvador

El Salvador does not have a variety of street food, especially dearth are the vegetarian street food options. In fact there is really only one, single type of street food worth eating in El Salvador: The Pupusa. These magical little filled dough pancakes more than make up for the lack of options.

Pupusas are like very thick corn tortillas are stuffed with the below ingredients and flattened down by hand before being heated on the grill.

Ingredients include:

• Cheese (vegetarian)

• Refried Beans (vegetarian)

• Cheese and refried beans (vegetarian)

• Chicharrones (pork meat)

• Pollo (Chicken)

• Chicharrones / pollo & cheese / beans

Pupusas are on every menu in every restaurant, but it’s best to belly up to a table at a pupuseria, which is a very local restaurant dedicated entirely to serving up steaming hot pupusas. No hemming and hawing over what to eat, no menu to peruse. Instead, just walk in, indicate how many of which type of pupusa you want and enjoy a cool beer while you wait. There is even a special flat grill dedicated to pupusa-making which is for sale in every appliance/home store in El Salvador. We considered shipping costs for one of these more than once, but alas, to what home would we send it?

Once your stack of pupusas has arrived, top them with curtido, a pickled cabbage salad similar to coleslaw bur marinated in vinegar (actually tasty!) and pour on a medium hot red salsa. The ingredients can vary slightly, but are almost always identical. In El Salvador, the default dough is made from corn, but there is also a rice dough version. Stick with corn, we advise, unless you – like us – gorge so often on pupusas that you really need the change up.

Should you ever find yourself hungry on a bus in El Salvador, do not worry, as waves of women with baskets or trays of pupusas will constantly jump aboard and squeeze and shimmy towards you squealing ‘puuuupuuuussaaaaas”.

Not only have the Salvadorians dedicated an entire type of restaurant to these delicious doughy disks, they have also dedicated an entire day to honor them: National Pupusa Day on November 13th. We were lucky enough to be in El Salvador on this holy celebration. However, because we took to downing 3-4 at least once a day, every day we spent in El Salvador was our Pupusa Day.

The best part about pupusas is that they are not only tasty, they are cheap, varying between 25 cents and 50 cents depending on where you get them. The best price meets best quality at about 40 cents per pupusa. Even the biggest eaters need no more than four to fill up, which means lunch or dinner for around $1.60.

Throughout Central America you will see street food stands with ladies preparing pupusas, and there is usually at least one pupuseria in any medium-sized city. In Guatemala they were too large, and the cheese was decidedly not delicious. In Honduras they were lackluster; their makers were not dedicated to art of the pupusa. Salvadoran pupusas are definitely the best, with just the right amount of dough combined with a much more delicious cheese, called Loroco, than found in other Central America countries.

Tip: We had our best Pupusas at a professional pupuseria in the small mountain town of Alegria. Next best were the two stands nearest the church on the central square in Suchitoto. The pupuseria next to the café had the best rice pupusas we sampled while in El Salvador.

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Hotel Tip of the Week: Entre Piedras in Alegria, El Salvador

hotel tip of the week

This is our first article in a new weekly series Hotel Tip of The Week. Being on the road every day of the year means we stay at countless hotels along the way. For all the dingy, disappointing budget digs, there are as many budget accommodation gems. We’ll be posting one hotel tip of the week, every week, of places we feel confident recommending after having tried and tested them ourselves. This week: Entre Piedras hostel in Alegria, El Salvador.

Entre Piedras hostel is set in a small mountain town of Alegria in El Salvador. Like most budget hotels in Alegria, Entre Piedras is a converted family house. What makes the hotel stand out is the way it brings guests the perfect balance of an at-home feeling with all the hotel amenities and services to feel like a valued guest. You won’t find Entre Piedras in any guidebooks yet either, as this near-new hostel opened only at the end of 2009.

Entre Piedras

Entre Piedras: A wonderful hostel in Alegria, El Salvador

Unlike many hostels, Entre Piedras is similar to a cozy bed and breakfast in size and feel. There are only three rooms available – one dorm of 6 beds, one room with a bunk bed for two (both with shared bath), and one master suite with a sprawling double bed and private bathroom.

Entre Piedras HostelRoberto, who manages the day-to-day business at Entre Piedras, goes above and beyond for his guests. Up early writing one morning, I had yet to have breakfast, and Roberto brought me a new fruit to try – a zapote, something I would never have tried but am sure glad I did. He also told us about a hike around the Laguna de Alegria, and even joined the guide and us on our hike, teaching us about local coffee history and coffee along the way. Entre Piedras was not just a great hostel in Alegria, El Salvador, but one of the most memorable hostel experiences in all of Central America.

Entre PiedrasThe restaurant has an excellent, if small, menu of international food. Breakfasts for US$3 hit the spot, and this is the only restaurant in town which offers an alternative to comida tipica, or typical food. The public rooms inside are decorated as though you are simply staying in someone’s house, but the knick knacks, antique technology gadgets, stack of 50s magazines and very antique black and white photos are so well curated that this is clearly a subtly constructed living museum of sorts.

Hostel Alegria El SalvadorIn fact, Roberto’s family run the La Casa Mia Hostel & Restaurante in the small nearby town Berlin, which contains such a large collection of artifacts, trinkets and family photos that the space is also officially a museum of both family and local history. This same style spills over into Entre Piedras, and makes for some fascinating snooping around, which is encouraged. (If you visit Berlin but don’t overnight, at least stop in to La Casa Mia for a piece of delicious cake and have a peek around the living room and family room which double as the museum space.)

Hostel Alegria El Salvador

Stand Out Features: Entre Piedras

At this hotel there are two features that bring Entre Piedras a head above the rest.  The first one is the excellent coffee. Roberto is a true coffee lover himself and has a top of the line coffee bar machine. Indulge in the best americanos, cappuccinos and lattes in El Salvador.

The second absolute stand out feature is the entire family’s engagement in quality tourism development in El Salvador and Central America. In addition to owning the two hostels Entre Piedras and La Casa Mia, the family are a part of ‘Red de Posadas Rurales’ a network of rural hostels and hotels through Central America that are of high quality, eco-friendly and engaged in their community. Roberto himself clearly has good relationships with hostel owners throughout El Salvador and is working together with Alex, the owner of the (also excellent) hostel Escencia Nativa in El Zonte, on a website called El Salvador By Bus. This website will map out the best and easiest routes for getting around the country by local ‘chicken’ bus and will include prices, schedules and journey times. Tourism infrastructure in El Salvador is rough at best and such assistance is sorely needed and much appreciated.

For the digital nomads & travel bloggers out there Entre Piedras offers free fast reliable wi-fi, and the hostel is peaceful enough to get work done. Working at one of the living room or dining room tables inside also feels like working from home, which after spending days in cafes and restaurants, is a really comfortable experience. At the time of our visit at the end of 2010, Entre Piedras was the only hostel with free wi-fi in Alegria, El Salvador.

Hostel Alegria El Salvador

Room for improvement: The Bathroom Situation

The shared bathrooms are clean and well-maintained, but are located in the back of the property. Guests of the hotel have to walk through the back end of the outdoor restaurant with wet hair and shower products in hand, which breaks up the enjoyable outdoor atmosphere of the restaurant and is a tad bit uncomfortable for guests. This shouldn’t affect your decision whether or not to stay at Entre Piedras, which we can whole-heartedly recommend should you find yourself in Alegria.

Details: Entre Piedras Hostel in Alegria, El Salvador

Location: Northeast corner of central park in Alegria, Usulutan, El Salvador.
Price: US$20.00 double room with shared bathroom / US$30.00 double room with private bathroom / dorms US$8.00
LGBT Friendly: Yes
Amenities: Restaurant, Wi-Fi, Payment with Cards possible, Hikes
Website: Entre Piedras Hostel Alegria

Hostel Alegria El Salvador

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The Day We Became Mountaineers…well, kind of.

Laguna de Alegria

After debating whether or not to wear hiking shoes for what we thought was a simple day hike to a laguna, Dani and I headed out front of our hostel in Alegria, El Salvador to meet our guide for the day, Walter. This bright, energetic young man with a twinkle in his eye stopped sharpening his machete long enough to shake our hands and exchange initial pleasantries, in spite of his potential weapon.

Laguna de Alegria hikeWe were very excited for this hike, which was offered to us by Roberto, the friendly owner of Entre Piedras hostel in the small mountain town of Alegria. After a few rather disappointing days on El Salvador’s Costa del Sol, we had finally arrived to the village which our trusty guidebook had lauded as one of the most picturesque in the country, and home to the Alegria Volcano and Crater Lake just 2km outside of town.

Laguna de Alegria hikeAt breakfast the day before, Roberto described a hike that would lead us through lush coffee plantations, high up onto the volcano ridge surrounding the Laguna de Alegria, and after circling the crater and catching spectacular views of nearby volcanoes, mountains and across all the way to the Pacific Coast, would lead us down into the sulfur lake with hot springs. The days we spent on the beaches had been particularly lazy, and with a great desire to get active, Roberto had us at the word ‘hike’.

This is how we found ourselves at 8am with Walter, and Roberto who decided to tag along, wondering about our judgment to head into the El Salvadorian wilderness with  two men and a machete. Roberto had a fairly sharp knife clipped to his belt, too. “For fruits we find on the way,” he explained. “And the machete?” Somehow, this question never escaped my tongue, as Dani and I simultaneously considered being nervous for about half a minute, but instead decided to trust our gut – and Walter’s contagious grin. We set off through the streets to the base of the mountain.

Laguna de Alegria hikeThe start was a steep 45 minute uphill hike through coffee plantations, and we panted like dogs through some interesting conversations about the coffee industry in El Salvador. Once at the top, we were rewarded by terrific views, as promised, and Walter showed us the route we would take around the entire crater top then down to the lake. Looking at the emerald green sulfur lake below and enjoying the breeze, the remaining walk didn’t seem too hard.

Laguna de Alegria hikeWe continued easily along well worn paths, arriving after another 20 minutes to a guard station on top of a small hill. The soldiers inside, in their underwear and brushing their teeth, didn’t seem to be guarding much at all, though the bullet holes blasted into the cement on the side were reminders of the long-term civil war which ravished the country from 1979 – 1992.

Alegria El SalvadorJust past the guard station, the path abruptly ended. Had I asked about what the machete was actually for before we set off, we would have learned that we were the first hikers to do the walk after the winter rainy season, and that the path had disappeared under branches, trees, and overgrown plants. Walter began hacking his way through the bushes and branches, magically following a path which the three of us did not see. Luckily, we didn’t find out until after the hike that the area was filled with scorpions, snakes and other little critters.

Laguna de Alegria hikeSuddenly, instead of solid ground, we were confronted with boulders piled up in front of us, and the only way to go was to hop and scramble from boulder to boulder like professional rock climbers – or Super Mario Brothers. Good thing we chose to wear our hiking shoes that morning. What had been a fairly easy hike had now turned in to a mountaineering session, with Walter holding our hands as we ascended and descended with one hand, while whacking at thick branches and tangled bushes in front of him with the other.

Laguna de Alegria hikeFinally, after five strenuous hours and a steep slippery gravel descent, we took in the smell of the sulfur lake while eating bananas and taking a very well-deserved break. On our return to town we took a different path, through a private coffee plantation, past workers collecting beans and children picking and crushing walnuts to share with us. Though we never intended on becoming mountaineers, we both felt sure, as we nibbled our walnuts, that the adventure was well worth the challenge.

Alegria El Salvador

Interested in staying at Entre Piedras hostal in Alegria, El Salvador? Check out our full review here! And if you don’t want to spend the night – it’s worth stopping by for a cup of delicious locally grown coffee. Say Hi to Walter from us!

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Reflections: 200 Days on the Road

Crossing the Border Belize – Guatemala

It is amazing how much life you can squeeze into 100 days. It seems like forever ago that we wrote our first 100 days on the road post from Mazunte, on the Pacific coast of Mexico. Between then and where we are now, in San Salvador, we have visited four countries, explored caves with Mayan skeletons, climbed volcanoes, swam with sharks and sting rays in the Caribbean, lived for a month in a beach front apartment in Playa del Carmen, had two fairly major illnesses, almost got robbed, traveled to places almost completely off the beaten path, met loads of people, worked full time, even took on extra work, blogged more, and we are nearly finished with a globetrottergirls.com website redesign.

In short, during our second 100 days, we have really gotten the hang of long-term travel. Balancing full-time work and full-time travel has gotten much easier, and it no longer feels as though we are ‘squeezing in’ time for the blog, either. Life on the road is certainly more spontaneous than stationary office life, but habits develop and life inevitably takes on a new, but distinct rhythm. What may have initially felt exotic is now second nature – chicken bus trips flinging us faster than roller coaster rides, hopping in and out of tuk tuks, bellying up to market stalls to wolf down street food, and even things like negotiating prices and striking up conversations with complete strangers now come with ease.

While some things have gotten easier, there have been some definite lows: Dengue, Giardia, bed bugs, serving as a mosquito buffet, and the typical bouts of some painful stomach cramps. In addition to interrupted good health, our work/travel pace has also been severely interrupted at times. A trip to Todos Santos and Chichicastenango in Guatemala and a hectic week in El Salvador kept us offline a lot recently, and we have had to make up for a lot of lost time.

During these offline times, it has become clear that the longer you travel and fall in love with exploring, the more you tend to fall off the beaten path, which means invariably means away from quality internet connections. This is fine for the mind-blowing life experiences column, but makes managing priorities a challenge, walking a fine line between staying planted online along the beaten path which ensures a much easier time of balancing work and travel, but strictly following the ‘Gringo Trail’ can be less than fulfilling for the explorers in us, even if it satisfies the worker inside. Our time in Antigua has also come and gone – a milestone of sorts for us. I lived in the colonial ex-capital for two years from 2001-2003, and since we met in 2006, I had constantly told Dani stories and even introduced her to some of the crazy characters from my time there. Finally after four years together and over five months on the road, we arrived in Antigua, staying for two weeks. We worked, I overcame the rest of my Dengue, we ate out (a lot!), and we basically recuperated and prepared for the heavy weeks of constant movement to come. It was amazing to have Dani explore with me not only the town, but this part of my path that may have always just been stories, had we never set off on this trip.

Two weeks was a great amount of time to rest in Antigua, but we spent even more time, an entire month, in a great apartment just two minutes from a nearly deserted section of Caribbean beach in Playa del Carmen. Here we worked intensely full-time, both of us, using the beach as the ultimate lunch break. Thinking back to the days of grabbing a sandwich and running an errand before stuffing ourselves back in the office in London, we appreciated every moment we had on the beach in Playa.

The Playa del Carmen segment of these last 100 days extended the Mexico leg of the trip even longer. After nearly three months, we semi-grudgingly cut off our time in Mexico toward the end of September, forcing ourselves to head on to Belize.

Of course, we ended up loving Belize, and Guatemala and El Salvador, too. During the former Reflections post one hundred days ago, we remarked that people, at least so far, are inherently good. Having now traveled to more countries, cities and smaller villages, our faith in people deepens, even despite an attempted robbery on my bag in a bus from Antigua to Chimaltenango (she razored the side, but didn’t get anything). Our enthusiasm for the people of Mexico (friendliest people on the planet) still stands, but we have been met with kindness, helpfulness and new friendships in each of the places we have visited.

One downside to our trip has been the fact that we eat out. A lot. We are tired of eating out in restaurants, and wish it were easier cook for ourselves. The food usually ranges from edible to delicious, but the waiting, the ordering, the clarifying what it means to be vegetarian (it has chicken, is that okay? No? Well, we have a lovely fish dish you might like to try….nothing with a face, you say?)…these things are time-consuming and complicated. Cooking for ourselves more often would be great, but only comes with our apartment rental and housesitting gigs, as the minority of hostels we stay at offers a guest kitchen.

But listen to us, complaining about the luxury of eating in restaurants, or eating at all. How ridiculous, considering the level of poverty we see as we move southward through Central America. It is not only the poverty, but the sharply defined divide between rich and poor. It is so absurd to see a shoeless man, whose feet are both black from dirt and bloody scamper quickly past an exclusive Nine West luxury shoe boutique in San Salvador to avoid bumping into an elegant middle-aged woman as she steps out of her Lexus SUV to purchase yet another pair of $200 shoes.

Shoes, in fact, have been a sensitive issue with us and we recently bought six pairs of them for six boys in Chichicastenango, Guatemala. Some of the boys, on their feet selling goods all day long, wore tattered and too-big hand-me-downs or even only plastic sandals during freezing cold evenings and mornings. If you were to go to Chichi in the next couple of weeks and mention Dani and Jessie the kids of Chichi would probably still know who you are talking about. Rather than buying ourselves anything in the most popular market town in the country, we ended up buying only shoes and nearly 20 kites for about 15 different kids, and had kids chasing us around and in their best English begging, “Shoes por me, miss?”

With each day our awareness of poverty increases, as we see human beings fighting for their lives as a result of the most basic illnesses and it breaks our hearts. Just as heartbreaking for us are the terrible conditions of the thousands of street dogs running rampant through these countries. For any of you who can watch a film with murders without flinching but turn down the volume and cover your eyes when a dog dies in a film – you will understand how we feel here. For every dog treated as one of the family, there are one hundred street dogs treated like rats. People shoosh them away and even throw shoes at them to force them away. All breeds of dog, from tiny Chihuahuas and West Highland Terriers to Rottweilers, Collies and an amazing range of mutts, are bone-thin, starving, constantly scavenging, nose in any heap of garbage to lap up the remaining crumbs. Their skin is often open, bleeding, gouged from dog fights, or worse, the wrath of remorseless teenage boys. We have seen several dogs lying on the side of the road or in a park, breathing shallow sips of air in what are most certainly their last few breaths. In Quiche, near Chichi, I am sure that one of the dogs, had we gone back just an hour later, would most certainly be dead. But who to help first? How to start? This is where we are at now, and each and every day we see another dog, man, kitten, child, woman that we would like to help. And although we considered it, we can’t buy everyone their own pair of shoes or take in all of the stray dogs.

Even though we have recently decided to kick up our travels into a higher gear to make it to South America hopefully by January / February, don’t be surprised if we stop along the way to volunteer, and any recommendations for volunteering with children in Honduras/Nicaragua/Costa Rica/Panama are happily accepted in the comments below.

Lastly, in these last 100 days, as our site has grown and filled with content, we have decided to take globetrottergirls.com to the next level. We need a fresh design to display much more content at once, rather than the straight chronological blogging format. Some kinks and links might still need adjusting, but we would love to hear comments on the new look and feel of globetrottergirls.com. We also finally have a subscription box, so please please please feel free to sign up to receive email updates with new posts as they are published.

We can’t believe how long we have now been on the road and how quickly another set of 100 days has flown by. We have no idea where we will be after our next 100, which, unbelievably will come at the end of February 2011 – stay tuned and follow our journey along the way…

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The Tops and Flops of 200 days on the road

Globetrottergirls at the Cave

Following our reflections on 200 days of travel, here are the tops and flops of our last 100 days on the road which we spent in Mexico, Belize, Guatemala and El Salvador:

Top travel moments

Snorkeling on Caye Caulker, Belize

Sitting on a boat, sailing through the Caribbean on a Tuesday afternoon drinking buckets of rum punch after an incredible day of snorkeling with nurse sharks, barracudas, turtles and sting rays along the world’s second largest reef, the Mesoamerican Reef off the coast of Belize and realizing how truly satisfying it is to longer work in an office.

Spending a month in a beachfront apartment in Playa del Carmen, Mexico.

We rented an apartment in Playa for one month in order to focus on our freelance projects – although we worked the entire time it was nice to have a ‘home’ again for 4 weeks and not have\to pack our backpacks every other day. Nothing can beat relaxing on Playa’s beautiful beach after a hard day’s work, or on your lunch break!

Driving a golf cart around Isla Mujeres, Mexico.

We really disliked Cancun, but just a ferry ride away from the Yucatan’s biggest city is what must be Mexico’s coolest island. Walk from the beach 40 meters straight out into crystal clear knee deep Caribbean water, and when you are done, hop on your golf cart and head to your next chill out spot. Everyone on Isla Mujeres drives golf carts, and it’s wicked, if not bizarre, to put the pedal to the metal and drive the carts on real roads.

Todos Santos, Guatemala

Getting off the bus in Todos Santos, Guatemala and feeling like we were well and truly off the beaten path as both men and women in full traditional Mayan gear gossiped about us in the Mayan language of Quiche, staring and gawking at the gringas.

Kite-flying with the kids of Chichicastenango, Guatemala

We were lucky enough to be in Chichicastenango for ‘Todos Santos’ (All Saints Day) on 1 November, which is marked by the beautiful tradition of kite-flying, often in the town cemetery to remember the dead.  While in Chichi we slowly gathered a group of local boys who started off following us asking us for shoes and toys, but eventually became our guides, showing off their town and especially the colorful cemetery on a hill. All of the boys were very excited about the kite festival, but couldn’t afford their own kites. So we bought them each one and beamed as we watched them proudly showing off their kite-flying skills – by far one of our best days in Guatemala. Did we mention that that was just after seeing a Mayan ceremony which included a live rooster sacrifice?

Worst travel moments

Crossing the border with Dengue Fever

In a word, and go ahead and quote me on this – Dengue sucks. In many words, I (Jess) had no idea I had dengue, associating my initial symptoms of fatigue and headache with our adventurous ATM tour the day before. The day we crossed the border from Belize to Guatemala, my legs were so sore I could barely walk, my fever was out of control, and not even the strongest Paracetomol (800mg tablets) could keep my headache at bay. But still, the symptoms worsened, and I attributed the fever, fatigue, insane soreness, and the feeling that each of my eyes was placed in a vice to the flu, nothing more, and even woke up at 4am for our sunrise tour of Tikal. I was trying not to be a ‘baby’ suffering from the flu, but when the pharmacist suspected Malaria or Dengue, and the lab confirmed the latter, suddenly all the pain made much more sense. In total Dengue knocked me down for two weeks. After the fever broke, and the extreme itchiness subsided, the fatigue and indifference began – I didn’t care about much, just wanted to sleep and hang out, nothing more. A few positives came out of the fever – Dani and I spent more time getting to know Flores and the beautiful Peten Itza lake, and after thinking I was a wimpy sickie, I realized that I was one tough cookie with Dengue – crossing the border (on foot, and buses and minivans and tuktuks, oh my) and schlepping my way through a lot of climbing at the Tikal ruins.

Every bus ride in Guatemala

Our first bus ride from Flores to Guatemala City was on an overnight bus with a driver from hell who shaved a good two hours off the ride. His goal appeared to be to beat the bus that left an hour before us. We beat that bus by an hour and were happy to have survived what must have been one of the bumpiest bus rides ever.

Another horrible ride was the chicken bus from Cuatro Caminos to Huehuetenango when we were thrown off the bench every time the bus went around a curve – and there were a lot of them! We were sore the next day from holding on with all our might. Even worse was the ride from Huehuetenango to Todos Santos – only 40 kilometers, but it takes nearly 3 hours: the oldest chicken buses you can imagine have to cross one of the highest mountain passes in the country and at some point, the paved road stops and you continue the trip on a dirt road. Fortunately, Todos Santos was more than worth the stress.

Top travel mishaps

Attempted theft

On a crowded chicken bus from Antigua to Chimaltenango Jess’ bag was sliced open by the lady who sat next to her. We are usually very careful with our bags but in a bus where they squeeze three grown-ups on a seat that was made for two school kids, it is actually not that easy – fortunately Jess realized what was going on before the woman could get anything. The lady suddenly had a very important phone call and got off at the next stop, before we said anything to her.

Other than that, we were pretty lucky again, except for the Dengue and Dani’s bout of Giardia.

 

Top food moments

Dani’s food discovery may have made her entire year: Huevos Motulenos are a Mexican dish that is typical on the Yucatan peninsula. It is a breakfast dish consisting of fried eggs on tortillas, with black beans, fried plantains and salsa, often also peas (and for meat eaters ham).

Jess’ top food moment was experimenting in the kitchen in our Playa del Carmen apartment – preparing our own versions of the amazing street food recipes we had sampled throughout Mexico.

Buying the still warm freshly baked Banana bread on Caye Caulker when they come around and sell it to from their baskets is pure heaven.

Discovering and devouring delicious Pupusas in El Salvador – they are the national dish, and can be found at any street food vendor, most of the restaurants and ‘Pupuserias’ – entire restaurants dedicated to just one thing: Pupusas! Essentially a filled tortilla, they come filled with cheese and beans, just cheese, or pork and cheese – in which case they are called ‘Pupusas Revueltas’. All are served up with cabbage and tomato salsa.

Our top stop in the last 100 days

Antigua, Guatemala

Of all the stops in all the towns, Antigua takes the cake as our favorite stop in the last 100 days of travel.  Antigua is an international, forward-thinking artistically minded UNESCO protected city with some of the most delicious restaurants and top quality bars in the country, not to mention over 70 Spanish schools, countless art galleries, poetry readings,film and live music nights. After months on the road, Antigua is the place to rest up, clean up, grab a bagel or hell, even some fondue and wine, maybe learn some Spanish or volunteer with kids, animals or in health care, or just hang out and meet people for days at a time, all while connected to excellent wi-fi internet like nowhere else in the country.

Maybe we are biased, since I (Jess) lived there for two years back a few years ago, but even now, seeing it with new eyes and through Dani’s eyes as well, Antigua was easily the most enjoyable of all our stops. If you took away all the good food, and art and kicked out all the gringos, the stunning colonial architecture and romantic ruins surrounded by three immense and (two) still erupting volcanoes would still make Antigua a magical place to visit. We stayed for two weeks in Antigua at the Casa Amarilla, or Yellow House, by far the cleanest, most relaxing and best value for money (amazing free breakfast) of all the hostels in Antigua.

Other favorite stops

Valladolid

Valladolid was easily our favorite place in Mexico – a charming little colonial town on the Yucatan with very few tourists, small enough to be explored by bike and has a very peaceful feel to it.

Flores

We were going to use Flores ‘only’ as a base for our Tikal visit, but this tiny island in Lake Peten Itza, with its tiny alleys and red-roofed houses, charmed us so much that we stayed longer and enjoyed a nice couple of days there, taking boat rides on the lake, meeting Miguel, swimming and watching the beautiful sunsets.

Todos Santos

Todos Santos is probably one of the most ‘Guatemalan’ places in all of Guatemala: a small town tucked into a valley in the Cuchumatan mountains, where the locals still wear the traditional colorful clothes they have been wearing for centuries, hand woven by women on their front stoops. We saw a total of five other foreigners over three days and we hope the long, bumpy bus ride to get there continues to discourage a mass influx of tourism.

Least favorite place

Transport towns: These towns essentially exist solely as a transport hub, and are bigger and grosser because of it. The town of Palenque (not to be confused with the beautiful nearby ruins) is a run town transport hub in Mexico that we definitely didn’t like (although Dani did discover Huevos Motulenos there), and Huehuetenango, or Huehue (wayway) in the Western Highlands of Guatemala, has absolutely nothing special to offer the visitor, serving mainly as the most logical overnight rest stop for travelers crossing the border from Mexico, and for those heading to Todos Santos.

Merida, in Mexico, was not one of our absolute least favs, but it was our most disappointing city. Merida had been described as a ‘magical’ colonial city but if you ask us, it could use a slap of paint and two slaps in the face – it’s a bit shabby and run down and could do much more to attract visitors. The Merida trip wasn’t a total bust, however, as we went on our amazing cenote tour from there, exploring several of these ‘underwater sinkholes’ in a horse-drawn carriage.

Top travel recommendations

Take the Chicken Buses in Guatemala

Yes, we did mention that the rides were some of our worst moments, with stomach-flipping turns and hours of hanging on for dear life, but we still highly recommend taking chicken buses everywhere in Guatemala. It’s easy to get caught up in the gringo-trap of taking shuttles, which are easier and can be more efficient at times. However, chicken buses are cheaper, way faster, a wide-variety of homemade foods (and drinks) are brought right onto the bus for you to choose from, and you could not be more ‘immersed’ (literally) in true Guatemalan culture than you are on a chicken bus. In terms of money-saving – we took a second class bus from Tikal to Guatemala City for Q240, or $30, each. No chicken bus ride after that cost us more than Q50, or $6.25, over very long distances. Shuttles can cost between $10-20.

Don’t believe the beach hype in El Salvador

Along the ‘gringo trail’ there is much hype right now about the beaches of El Salvador, one of the world’s top surf spots. If you know your way around a board, or want to learn how to surf, then definitely hit up El Tunco, El Zonte, El Sunzal and maybe La Libertad. El Tunco has the cheapest surf lessons and great waves. If you don’t surf, these beaches can offer you nothing more than a giant pile of rocks and nowhere to lay out. The Costa del Sol, on the other hand, is rumoured to have long spacious sandy beaches. The sandy rumour is true, but the beaches are not well maintained and hotels are miles apart, meaning if you don’t like your first choice and don’t have a car, it’s a mile walk with your backpack to the next affordable hotel – affordable meaning $30 a night at least, but probably much, much more. The accommodation options are limited to expensive all-inclusive hotels which cater to day-trippers from the capital rather than overnighters, and the hotels are run-down, shabby shadows of a long gone glorious pre-war past. You want beach? Go to Costa Rica or to Playa del Carmen in Mexico.  For a true El Salvadorian experience, head to the quaint Alegria, inspiring Suchitoto or foodie-favorite La Ruta de las Flores.

Flores, Guatemala

Don’t just stay here as a base for your Tikal trip – stay for a couple of days and spend time on the Lake Peten Itza – there is even a zoo in the middle of the lake and unlike the more famous Lake Atitlan, Peten Itza is clean and perfect for swimming.

Belize

If you want to choose one spot on the islands in Belize, choose Caye Caulker every time! Go snorkeling and ask for Harry and Steve to take you. Their company is called BlackHawk Sailing.

Isla Mujeres, Mexico

When visiting the Yucatan, Isla Mujeres makes a great day trip, but you can also stay overnight in one of the islands many hotels. The island is just a short boat ride off the coast of Cancun but in contrast to Cancun, there are no skyscraper hotels and overpriced restaurants. Instead you will find empty beaches (at least in low season), colorful houses, cheap restaurants with great Mexican food and excellent beach bars.

Tip: The ‘local’ ferries that leave from Puerto Juarez (just north of Cancun) are much cheaper than the ‘tourist’ ferries that leave directly from Cancun and they go to exactly the same place on the island.

Keep reading:

Our Tops and Flops of 100 days of travel: Las Vegas, California, Arizona, Mexico

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Polaroid of the week: Chillin’ at sunset in El Salvador

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After 5 weeks of traveling through Guatemala we were ready for some beach time and went to El Salvador in search of a nice beach getaway. El Salvador’s Pacific Coast is especially known for its excellent surfing conditions and one of the best surfer beaches is El Tunco. The weather is hot and sunny all year round and the waves attract surfers from around the globe. The atmosphere is friendly and relaxed and we spent a great day in El Tunco watching the surfers and the gorgeous sunset from one of the beach bars.

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How much does it cost to travel in Central America?

Border Crossing Costa Rica Panama

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

In this article, we are breaking down the costs of traveling through all of Central America: Guatemala, Belize, Honduras, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Costa Rica and Panama – in order for those planning a trip to have a rough idea of how much traveling through Central America costs.

Overall Central America Budget Breakdown

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

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

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

Central America travel budget breakdown per country

Belize: $54 per person per day

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

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

Belize snorkeling

Guatemala: $23.12 per person per day

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

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

tienda Chichicastenango Guatemala

Honduras: $28.68 per person per day

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

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

Central America travel budget

El Salvador: $24.05 per person per day

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

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

how much does it cost to travel in Central America

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

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

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

how much does it cost to travel in Central America

Costa Rica: $26.62 per person per day

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

Accommodation: $10 per person in a double room
Transport: $1.20 for short distance bus rides, $2.50 for medium-distance rides, $8.00 for long distance bus rides
Food: A meal in a restaurant or in a soda runs at around $5 to $9. Beer $2 – $3.
Culture: The National Parks in Costa Rica are exceptionally beautiful and well worth the entrance fees, which range from $10 to $20. Ziplining is around $50 from the cheapest provider in Monteverde.

Central America travel budget

Panama: $35.71 per person per day

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

Accommodation: $10 per person per night – the cheapest accommodation was $6.50 per person in a triple room, the most expensive was $12 per person (also in a triple).
Transport: $1.50 for short-distance bus rides, $7 for medium distances, 12.50 for long distances. Inner city buses in Panama City cost between $0.25 and $0.50.
Food: A meal is between $3 and $8, depending on the location.
Culture: The Panama Canal visitor center at the Miraflores Lock is $15, a ferry ride to Taboga Island is $20 for a return ticket, and movie theater tickets are $3.

How much does it cost to travel in Central America

How much does it cost to travel in Central America: Practical information

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

Have you traveled through Central America? If you have, what countries did you find budget-friendly? Where did you splurge? Was your Central America travel budget similar to ours?

 

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